INTERVIEW AND LIVE PICTURES BY MARKO SYRJALA
German band Helloween is one of the pioneering forces and most successful bands in the power metal world and its related subgenres. The band was originally formed in 1984 by Michael Weikath, bassist Markus Grosskopf, vocalist/guitarist Kai Hansen, and drummer Ingo Schwichtenberg. Their early albums, KEEPER OF THE SEVEN KEYS I and KEEPER OF THE SEVEN KEYS II, which featured vocalist Michael Kiske, are considered masterpieces of the genre. The band went through a large number of changes during the late ’80s / early ’90s. Hansen left in 1988, formed his band Gamma Ray and was then replaced by Roland Grapow. Kiske and Schwichtenberg were out of the picture in 1993, and they were then replaced by drummer Uli Kusch and current vocalist Andi Deris (ex-Pink Cream 69). The renewed lineup re-established the band’s popularity, and the album THE TIME OF OATH (1996) remains their best-selling album to date. Despite the continuous success, the band went through another set of changes starting in 2001. Today the band consists of Deris, Weikath, Grosskopf, guitarist Sascha Gerstner, and drummer Dani Loble. This line-up has released four studio albums altogether, and it seems that Helloween is now even more popular than the so-called “heydays” in the mid-’80s. Three sold-out shows spoke for themselves when the band arrived in Finland in late March as a part of the massive “Hellish Rock II” tour, which also featured Gamma Ray. In Helsinki, we were fortunate to sit down with the band’s guitarist/founding member Michael Weikath and discuss various topics, including the current tour, the latest opus STRAIGHT OUT OF HELL. Helloween’s 30’TH Anniversary, and re-union rumors… Read on!
HELLISH ROCK TOUR AND MORE
Metal-Rules.com: Let’s start with this current tour, which started like one month ago, right?
Michael Weikath: Yeah.
Metal-Rules.com: This is the second “Hellish Rock” tour you’re doing with Gamma Ray. How has everything gone so far?
Michael Weikath: Well, first of all, I think it’s a curious thing to do. Whoever came up with that idea, I’ve said so in various interviews; I like the fact that we’re doing something stupid like, okay, the second part, which usually you would never do. You go, like, that’s impossible. We did that, and there are so many reasons not to do it again. I thought it’s really fun just to do it against all odds. That’s what I like about it. Apart from that, we know the guys, and we have a lot of fun, a lot of good times, whatever. It’s strange. It’s a bit like everything is different but still kind of déjà vu; time travel, different dimension, or something really strange and funny at the same time.
Metal-Rules.com: You and Kai Hansen have a long shared history starting from the year 1984. A lot of time has elapsed since then, and there have been periods when you didn’t get along, let’s say … in the best possible way. How is it actually to play with your old bandmate again?
Michael Weikath: I don’t know because you have the time machine effect. When I play stuff with Kai Hansen on stage, live, back then, I didn’t talk to him for about a year; only the necessary things. We still do rehearsals, but apart from that, I didn’t want to talk to him anymore because of certain reasons. Only to imagine that 15, 20 years later, you’re here and doing all this in a friendly manner and with a lot of fun actually because he learned from—no, I learned a lot from him. He learned a lot from me, and we both kind of changed over the years or improved or went worse but in the same direction, whatever so that there is an underlying better understanding of the other person. We’re both strong psychopaths, so you’re getting a bit closer there with the understanding of each other. It doesn’t matter, yeah? Because I have my life, and he has his life. It doesn’t matter at all. But there are these magic moments like when the sparklers are getting over from the audience. Sometimes, not always, but sometimes, you get those special little moments for you, and you think this was cool, something that happens in a fraction of a second or something. You can’t deny that it happens if you do things like that.
Metal-Rules.com: Do you see that still after all these years, when you are older and wiser, that there is some kind of…
Michael Weikath: Yeah, but wiser doesn’t mean better… necessarily. “Laughs”
Metal-Rules.com: But do you see that—is there any kind of competition between you two after all these years?
Michael Weikath: I don’t think so? I mean, it’s all been said and done. You know what’s been played; he was certainly strong on certain fields of his guitar work, whereas I’m strong in another field of guitar work or whatever. I think none of us would fucking care if there is anything that the other can do better or—you know, you’re content in bringing across your own personal magic as good as you can.
Metal-Rules.com: Yeah, there is no need to prove anything anymore, right.
Michael Weikath: I wouldn’t think so.
Metal-Rules.com: On this tour, you’re doing a set of early Helloween classics together with Hansen on stage. How much did you have to practice and even re-learn some of the old stuff like “Heavy Metal Is the Law” before the tour started?
Michael Weikath: A few emails were being sent back and forth, and it’s the stuff that we had played before. Not necessarily everyone; for instance, Dani has never played “Heavy Metal is the Law.” I’m not sure if he ever played “How Many Tears” before, do you know? But there you go. That was the only thing that you had to figure out what to—but the other parts—well, I mean Hansen and I have played before all the time except for “Heavy Metal is the Law.” It wasn’t known to anyone in the actual Helloween apart from Markus and Deris because we played that in Korea, and on the “Dark Ride” tour for a few occasions, we had “Heavy Metal is the Law.”
Metal-Rules.com: I learned that you would play a show at Rock in Rio festival in late September, and it’s going to include Kai Hansen as a special guest. Tell us something more about that show?
Michael Weikath: I think it’s going to take place the same way as we do it here, except for Gamma Ray won’t be around, so he’ll just be there for that special medley or whatever.
Metal-Rules.com: After that Rio thing you are going to play, was it all together ten shows, in North America but without Gamma Ray. Why it’s going to be like that?
Michael Weikath: Yeah, I suppose it’s going to be like that, but I don’t know why. Maybe there are some cost involved things, but the Gamma Rays may have other things to do or a different schedule. Or perhaps they just don’t see the point in doing it. I don’t know. I don’t know the background of why not. Maybe it’s because of logistics or whatever?
Metal-Rules.com: Anyway, this tour is going to continue for a while. You have plenty of shows across Europe. There are some Russian dates, European festivals, Japan, and then those U.S. dates. Do you have plans to continue the tour after those dates?
Michael Weikath: That’s always happening if something comes in, or there is a promoter making you an offer that fits the time frame. I think everything that is a good and reliable idea and doable will be taken. The problem is that sometimes people who want to be promoters try to make a show, and our booking agent is extremely critical, and he can tell right from the start if something is survivable or if something is dangerous. Because you can go there and it may be a nice person, and he wants to do a great concert, but he’s never done it before. And then you don’t know when you can go to the toilet. You don’t know where you can get something to eat. Or you don’t have water when you need it; elementary stuff like that.
Metal-Rules.com: Do you have any plans to make some kind of document from these “Hellish Rock” shows? DVD or something, you know?
Michael Weikath: Probably.
Metal-Rules.com: But you haven’t filmed anything yet?
Michael Weikath: I can’t tell you anything about that because usually we don’t get told. So if there is any occasion, I could imagine that one of the festivals we’re filming will take place. Last time on Woodstock, we weren’t told that it was all being recorded, and that’s maybe better.
Metal-Rules.com: Then you don’t have any pressure?
Michael Weikath: Yeah, and you are not nervous or whatever because you just act differently because you know it. So whenever something is taking place, I think that’s the management’s general policy that they don’t actually tell us before. I think that’s better. You are a different person if you know that you’re are being recorded or you have to do it for the sake of something bigger, for like a higher cause or something. You get nervous, and you act differently.
STRAIGHT OUT OF HELL, AND PURPLE STUFF
Metal-Rules.com: Let’s talk a bit about your latest album, STRAIGHT OUT OF HELL. I would say that the album is one of your strongest in a while. It does have a perfect and positive vibe, and the song material is overall fresh and strong. How do you like the album yourself now, three months after its release?
Michael Weikath: I think it’s one of those really good albums we’ve done, and it has magic, and it’s kind of very accessible for the listener. And it’s a fun album. It’s an album that doesn’t give you the creeps or annoys you or whatever; it’s playable, very playable. There is like an overall good song that you can play it often. It could be a classic record or hit record or something.
Metal-Rules.com: Charlie Bauerfeind once again produces this album. Some people say that his work is a bit generic, but it seems that you are delighted with his work because you have been working with him for ten years already.
Michael Weikath: Yeah, and that’s why. He is capable of ending the production within a given time frame. And then he plans it, and you finally get your album delivered by him. He always says he puts his name under the production. That’s not an easy task with anyone or everyone, particularly if you chose to check out a different producer; it can always end in a fiasco. You never know. Even though everyone involved may be cool or whatever, but then something goes wrong. Never change a winning team if not necessary. We were very afraid of what would happen after the majority of the band decided there should be a different producer and not Tommy Hansen anymore. That kind of worked out. Even the DARK RIDE was a different theming, and everything it was a generally great product in itself; sounded good, but the production was flawless more or less. What can you say? It’s been ten years or a little bit longer already. And that’s okay as long as he has the time and the nerve and the interest to do it.
Metal-Rules.com: There are only two songs written by Michael Weikath on the new album. How are we now come to a situation where Andy Deris and Sascha Gerstner are the primary songwriters, and even Markus does nowadays more writing for Helloween than you?
Michael Weikath: That’s okay because maybe they have a different approach or—and sometimes I’m not really happy with the material I come up with, and then I don’t do it. Or it takes too much time or whatever. Or it takes more time to get arranged or played or recorded or whatever. There is a lot of detailed work involved. Then what I’m mainly interested in is not messing around and not behaving like a cunt only because I don’t have more tracks ready or if I have more tracks ready that don’t get accepted, then for me, what’s important is to have peace inside the band and have great tracks on one album that you can call a great album. Yeah, it’s not so much that I have to prove big time what I can do. If there are only two tracks and the people say, why didn’t he write more? Well, I did. They just somehow didn’t make it. Then I’m rather proud that something like “Burning Sun” is there or “Years” rather than something that had nothing to say that was very important for me by the time I did it, and it is there, and that’s fine. It would be a different life without that track, but I’m not so fond of “Nothing to Say,” for instance. Or “Do You Know What You Are Fighting For,” I think, is very important because it goes like the Deep Purple scene and whatever. People come and say, “That track is unnecessary, and I find it boring, and I don’t know what he wanted to express with it. What crap!”
Metal-Rules.com: Now, when you mentioned Deep Purple, I have the limited edition version of the album, which includes the “Hammond” version of the track “Burning Sun,” and it’s dedicated to the late Jon Lord. Tell me something about the meaning of Jon Lord to you?
Michael Weikath: As I said in a few interviews before, he was one of the pioneers of rock music with Hammond organ, which wasn’t exactly…from Deep Purple you could tell ever since they were called Carousel or Carousel or whatever, that they were searching for a brand mark sound which they didn’t succeed in getting so quick. They had a singer who sounded like everyone else who was a good singer, but he just sounded like fucking everyone. They sounded like yet another beat band. They tried classical excursions with April and stuff, and still, it was all the same, not very distinct from what other bands were around by that time. Given all their talent and all the musicians’ knowledge, they were just looking for a thing that would culminate and rock. Then suddenly, there it was. They just needed to ride it out, and they were enjoying the style they had found, which wasn’t easy. By the time you must imagine, even nowadays days living in England it’s not so easy being a musician or wanting to be a musician, whatever. If you don’t have the particular magic or something that’s putting you apart from the rest—there are so many cynical dark-haired or blonde or whatever “coolettes” who want to play the rock and roll guitar, and what can a poor guy do except play in a rock and roll band and it doesn’t work out. There are so many people—they take their cocaine, and they want to be so cool, and they are all capable, and somehow it doesn’t work out. Can you imagine how it was back then?
Metal-Rules.com: No, actually, I can’t even imagine that, but I have read many books written by bands and people who made their living with music and lived in England in the’60ss/the ’70s. There were some harsh stories there.
Michael Weikath: It’s almost unbelievable. It was almost impossible. They were pioneers of doing something, and they did it, and they lived it, and it was so fucking dangerous. They could have ended up somewhere else. They could have starved from hunger, or they could have…whatever. It could have ended just that way. They had that talent and that thing that they do—same as Black Sabbath and bands later on. There was so much stuff because you had managements, you had record companies, and you had a radio. That was all kind of known, but before it was out in the wild, creeping around. Fleetwood Mac, whoever—bands, dudes with guitars, and David Bowie, and all this was so fucking insecure. If you didn’t have a record company that would put out your stuff and publishes it to the mainstream, you could simply just get lost and fucking die. They did something extraordinary. They weren’t even one of the biggest bands.
I think Ritchie Blackmore was always a bit angry that there was someone from Spooky Tooth who made Foreigner and went this up. They were all starting at the same time. Then it’s like, why did he get that far with his fucking music and his damn records. Why was fucking Black Sabbath so strong? Why did they outsell us? What about freakin Led Zeppelin? They come this far to be the biggest band ever. What about the freakin Beatles. Why can’t we get that fame? That’s been that situation, and Jon Lord was playing his keyboards and playing his organ. There was Brian Auger, Ken Hensley, there were other people, but that was Jon Lord. He’s been that character.
THE BAND LINEUP AND CHEMISTRY
Metal-Rules.com: STRAIGHT OUT OF HELL is the fourth album of the current line-up. You have been together like ten years, I think, as of next year. So what’s the secret of this longevity because it’s a fact that Helloween has gone through many changes in the past?
Michael Weikath: I think it’s because we have a good mix of characters now. I mean, you can always pursue ego things, and you can freak out and make yourself a bad time or think about it, and usually, things run quite cool. That’s a matter of chemistry. If it were different, there would be other things like you heard about in the past. So far, there hasn’t been a point where—that would have to be executed or happen or whatever. Do you know that’s good for everyone inside the band and outside band because then you have a line-up that kind of works? People like the line-up they can get used to. There was a particular Rainbow line up that everybody liked, and there was some Black Sabbath or Michael Schenker line up that everybody liked. Either you know what I’m referring to, or you disagree, and you have a different line up that you preferred. We have this, and I’m pretty happy with that.
Metal-Rules.com: In your opinion, what is the classic lineup of Helloween?
Michael Weikath: The classic line up—that’s the one with Michael Kiske and Ingo and Hansen. That’s a time… that’s something that time passed by. Now we’re in the present, and that’s what we do to make a good living and whatever. You know, the new line-up has its advantages, and the old classic one had its disadvantages. Actually, it wasn’t an easy life. I mean, you hear the complaints about me and what kind of asshole and dictator I was or whatever…and the people who say that they know themselves that it’s not true if they really reflect. They know what was going on back then, and it’s just easy to put the blame just on me.
Metal-Rules.com: Yeah, but everybody has their side for the story.
Michael Weikath: It could have all been so cool if not for the fucking bikers around, and it could have been so cool if I wouldn’t have been around because then I wouldn’t have had to have that entire struggle that was going on. For me, what counts is that you have a great act that works and functions and is looked upon by the people as something important or great or something, and that is indispensable. Because you can do so many unnecessary bands, you can go and say hmm.
Metal-Rules.com: Would I dare to ask that how is your relationship with Roland Grapow these days?
Michael Weikath: None.
Metal-Rules.com: Some rumors were flying that his current band Masterplan would be a part of this ongoing “Hellish Rock II” tour. Was there any truth behind that rumor?
Michael Weikath: They were just rumors. There are always reasons why people are not in the band anymore. And it’s good to stick to that stuff. We are in the process of tightening our position in public. It’s the Helloween band we are. Everything we do as reunion stuff or whatever it means flickering about and losing time in presenting your very own identity. And if you do it a “Hellish Rock III,” it might turn out to be very, very, very boring to the few people who are not really interested in it. Some people are interested. People who get so cynical with you may have like half of the tickets being sold; if there was like—even if you have everything you wish for, it doesn’t mean that it was a great success.
Metal-Rules.com: Right, but as you said earlier, the band is now in great shape, and it’s very stable. It also seems that you have finally found some stability with record companies as well. So do you feel safe on that side now?
Michael Weikath: I don’t know if we have a record company still or not. I assume, but I don’t actually know.
Metal-Rules.com: So you don’t follow those business things so closely?
Michael Weikath: It always changes. Somebody says something, and then it’s a different thing a week later or a month later. Even if somebody said like we’re not Sony anymore or whatever, I would give it a wait; that can’t be right at the moment when that it’s said. I got used to that so many things change back to what it was or different or that everything was said too quickly. You know, I also don’t care about concert dates or whatever because I always think it can always change. If someone asks me when are you going?—well, we’re going to do Rock in Rio, so that’s probably on that day. It’s supposed to be, yeah, so that’s something you can kind of rely on, but I wouldn’t.
RE-UNION FACTS AND RUMORS
Metal-Rules.com: Speaking some more about rumors, it wasn’t that long time ago when it was announced that Helloween would do some shows with the “classic” line-up in 2015. Is that thing going to happen?
Michael Weikath: Yeah, first, it was 2014, and now it’s in 2015 after I said something to them. That’s a more likely date than what they said before in 2014—it would have been entirely impossible. Whatever happens in 2015 is maybe a different thing because, as Michael Kiske says, he needs a reunion like a pimple on his ass or something like that. I don’t quite know what he said, and people are dreaming in public and in interviews of a reunion, that’s not me. Maybe he understood it that way, but I wouldn’t conceive—that’s misconceptions going on. He thought I was dreaming about a reunion, but I’m not. When the management says we have to do a reunion, we’re likely going to try something like that. As long as they don’t say anything like that, I don’t need it either.
Metal-Rules.com: Buy you don’t mind about doing a show or small tour with the classic line-up?
Michael Weikath: Yeah, sure. Sure, I’ll do it if someone tells me about it. “Laughs”
Metal-Rules.com: Even if it was never an official statement, it was extended in the news everywhere.
Michael Weikath: Oh yeah, that’s always what we’re thinking. It’s actually instrumental in getting bands back together like in Judas Priest and Iron Maiden or Led Zeppelin’s “Celebration Day” when everybody was happy to leave the stage afterward. I thought that “Celebration Day” was a great concert apart from a few things but… I have it on my iTunes, and it certainly is something extraordinary.
30 YEARS OF HELLOWEEN
Metal-Rules.com: If I’m right, the next year is going to be Helloween’s 30th anniversary?
Michael Weikath: Yeah, we just had the 25’TH.
Metal-Rules.com: Yeah, but it’s 30’TH next year. Do you have plans to celebrate it somehow?
Michael Weikath: I’d be sick of doing something right then. Again, if the management has a great idea doing something for the 30th and the idea is doable, then yeah, fine with me. But I’m not going to come up with a particular idea we do about 30 years of existence, rather 50 years.
Metal-Rules.com: When you did start this band in 1984 with Markus, Kai, and Ingo, did you imagine that you would still be here some 30 years later?
Michael Weikath: Yeah, it was just what we did. It’s been kind of planned, and we’ve been very well prepared. We’ve rehearsed five, six, sometimes seven hours a day except Sundays for some time, for a few months. When the career finally took off and the records were sold, we cut short on the rehearsals because that would be overkill. Otherwise, we could not have some private time left with all the madness that was going on. Still, as everybody says, I’ve even heard a second person say recently to me when we were famous, we had fewer fans than now. What we did was kind of expected, and that’s what we were—that’s been the direction we’ve been working for.
Metal-Rules.com: So, the original plan has been working great.
Michael Weikath: Yeah. It was quite good for Noise Records, “laughs.”
Metal-Rules.com: 30 years hold many things but, in your opinion, what have been the highlights of Helloween’s career so far?
Michael Weikath: Well, those were the Donington Festivals. Back then, it Guns N’ Roses right after us. The Monsters of Rock festival in Germany with like 110,000 people each.
Metal-Rules.com: With Kiss and Iron Maiden…
Michael Weikath: And Cinderella, Deep Purple, and Dio. And then there was the Polish thing that we did, the Woodstock. There were supposedly 750,000 people in there. I also remember when we had the first show in Indonesia that was also kind of fucking crazy. We had a great show in the old Kiss Stadium in Hungary. That also was kind of impressive. Or the Phillips show with Iron Maiden in Brazil; that was our first time to be in Brazil. Those were the things. And then, yeah, have “Dr. Stein,” “I Want Out,” all that stuff, and the record sales of KEEPER 1 and KEEPER 2. Those were the highlights.
Metal-Rules.com: It must have been a fantastic time then, but a few years later, many negative things did happen and follow. You went through tough times, but you made it back for good. After those successful years, I have to ask how you find the motivation and will to carry on with Helloween back then?
Michael Weikath: Well, the idea with the pop didn’t work out, and then you have switched. You have to understand, okay, the people don’t want that. The ‘70s are over. In the ‘70s, you could have transformed a band musically, and the fans would have maybe accepted it if the material was strong enough. In the sense of Queen or whatever, they did strong enough stuff that the masses would accept it. That didn’t work out with us, so then you have to be able to switch and understand that you’ve been wrong, and then you have to turn the ship around.
Metal-Rules.com: I do remember when you did the “Master of the Rings” tour in 1994, it was much smaller venues you did back then. In Helsinki, you did play in club Tavastia.
Michael Weikath: Helsinki was always like a strange thing like Berlin or something. The people are there, but you know the Finns are very, very curious people in themselves. In Helsinki, you have lots of strange people who have this opinion, that opinion, and that opinion, and so it’s not been a big miracle that we had to play a very small club here as it was. “Laughs”
Metal-Rules.com: Right… It’s the time of the very last question. You and Markus are the only remaining members from the early days, but who owns the name Helloween these days?
Michael Weikath: Ingo’s step-brother.
Metal-Rules.com: Is it really like that?
Michael Weikath: Yeah, but he has no problem with us using that name because he fully supports us.
Metal-Rules.com: Do you have to give him some royalties, some money?
Michael Weikath: No, no. He doesn’t want any of that. He just wants to have a good life.
Metal-Rules.com: Great. I didn’t know that, but some time ago, I heard a rumor that it’s Andi Deris who owns the name by himself, but maybe it’s not true then?
Michael Weikath: It’s a rumor. You know, it’s always people thinking, and it’s always to make up an exciting story that everybody goes what? If that was so, I’m also not gay. I have no sexless children. I’m not traveling to Thailand. I don’t have a Japanese wife in Holland. “Laughs”
Metal-Rules.com: You don’t? “Laughs”
SPECIAL THANKS TO LIVENATION FINLAND FOR PHOTO PASS
AND KOSTA ZAFIRIOU FROM BOTTOM ROW FOR SETTING THIS INTERVIEW UP !!