The German power metal squad Blind Guardian is going to unleash their 10th album called BEYOND THE RED MIRROR. The band’s vocalist Hansi Kürsch and the guitarist André Olbrich visited Finland on the long promotional trip and sat down to talk about the forthcoming album as well as the upcoming massive orchestral album. Of course we talked about their progression over these years.
Interview and pictures by Arto Lehtinen
Andre : Yeah.
Hansi : That’s true. We played with Heavenly, yes. That’s true.
I guess the best show I have seen from you was definitely Wacken, because of the visual things and pyros and of course in Slovenia at Metalcamp.
Hansi : MetalCamp.
Andre : That was cool, yeah.
The Blind Guardian fanbase is very wide. There are death metal, black metal people and people who play role-games and of course typical metal heads. There is general wide audience.
Andre : We see this in the tour, its crazy sometime. Gothic, everything is in there.
Are you going to make more festival appearances next summer as you are going to make a huge tour anyway?
Hansi : Next summer, I don’t think that we are going to play festivals, it doesn’t look like. Because we will be on tour from the beginning of April to the mid of June, and afterwards we are supposed to keep our concentration on the Orchestra album. Which we have recorded lots of pieces in terms of Orchestral performance and I basically have to sing, so this is what we have scheduled for the summer and we would have to follow up with lots of touring all over the world up to the end of the year and therefore we just said no festivals. We are taking this one in 2016.
Then you are going to make huge festival appearances all around in 2016?
Hansi : That’s the idea, yeah. If the plan works as we have it in mind at the moment, after the festival season we would be ready to release the Orchestra album.
That you have been working several years?
Hansi : Yeah, several years.
UPCOMING ORCHESTRA ALBUM
Tell more about this orchestra album. What’s up with it as you have been working a long time?
Andre : Since ’98.
Andre : 98 or ’97 we started…
Hansi : Its 18 years actually next year. So, it is about to deliver that baby into the arms of the world. Basically it’s free styled Blind Guardian music, related strongly musically to what we did in the classical approaches of the last three albums and musically in general; from my point of view delivers a sort OF NIGHTFALL IN MIDDLE-EARTH image. It is obviously the biggest aim we’ve ever had to, and we worked on it, whenever we found the time between the regular song writing. There is a little bit of spirits from each album we did in between. Since these songs always designed in a classical manner they still deliver something different in comparison to what we have done the last 16 or 18 years. While my performance has an even stronger story telling approach. It’s singing and it’s Blind Guardian sort of singing, probably a little less aggressive than BEYOND THE RED MIRROR, but on a fairly intense level. This corporation is from my point of view something unique; you cannot if you compare it to our stuff or to any other classical orientated album which has been released up to now. It has a very strong conceptual image if you relate to all the songs there and therefore we decided to work with one of my most favorite authors Markus Heitz, who is a well known fantasy author from Germany. He’s mostly famous for his books about Dwarves.
Are you going to work with Charlie Bauerfeind in your own studio or are you going to try a little bit different thing like finding a new producer or…?
Hansi : No. Charlie has accompanied us over the whole time. He is very keen and familiar with the stuff and a lot of stuff which we have created would not have been possible with our team. So, we have to bring a tune with Charlie, there is no doubt about. There were never ever any considerations to go a different direction. We work on such things with people we rely on and we believe we can enrich our music and production in general, once we have decided to go for these people then it is like a real relationship for us even though they do not strictly belong to Blind Guardian; they play such an important role that it is no good idea from our point of view to change this set up too often. We usually don’t like that. We are sort of family type of band.
Andre : We started recording the album already many years ago. Charlie was the first choice. If I could choose now I would still choose him, because he has a great knowledge about all the classical instruments, how to record a classical orchestra. He has the basic knowledge about party tour. So, not many producers have those skills.
Is it a little bit challenging or difficult, because you are working on the Orchestral album for a long time and at the same time you have to work on the new album?
Andre : No. It’s fun.
Hansi : It’s pure fun, yeah.
Andre : You’d like to switch when you are stuck with metal songs for example and you want to relax, you can use this as relaxing time. Because it’s so different to work on this and you will find maybe easier ideas for that one, and you work some weeks on the orchestral stuff and then you switch back to metal songs. Because at a certain point I always need a real kind of guitar – something fast. It’s nice how we did so far because in the orchestral project there is no pressure. We don’t have any dates, when we need to deliver this. We can fill it in whenever we feel like and just make use of mood that this there for the metal album is different; there we have a kind of schedule and we need to deliver or we want to be in our time schedule. So, it’s a more constantly working process and there you have a little bit more pressure and try of course to work more intense with this. But yeah, like the Orchestral one day as he said will even come to a point there.
Is it a little bit difficult because record labels are watching, always watching over the budgets?
Andre : We are independent firm, record label. We have a contract to deliver on our side at some point, but we are our own boss. We are the producers. We are setting the dates, we set everything.
BEYOND THE RED MIRROR
As for the new album you have three different choirs from Budapest, Prague and Boston. How this came about?
Hansi : If you read it, it sounds extraordinary, it’s spectacular but in general it was something which was fairly easygoing. We had that particular part in the beginning of the Ninth
Wave, where the huge choir appears prior to the first entrance of the band. Our idea about this part was to create a choir writing lyrics in the size like “Carmina Burana” by Carl Orff, and “Carmina Burana” contains 200 people singing. Something like 200 people, and there was no choir big enough which we could get. We just used the chance of using with three different choirs, three different locations to have the size, the capacity of at least 120 or 160 people singing. This has been the reason for three kind of choirs. The other songs, they usually get along with one choir, one classical choir if needed. There was another need for the American choir, because we have some English spoken lyrics in some of the songs like the Holy Grail for example; which demanded a sort of classical choir support as well. We felt this could be a new stylish element in Blind Guardian even though we have worked with classical choirs on the last album already. They just have their spots in a typical classical way, this time we said: well, let’s have a classical choir singing in a speed metal song. To have that with native voices was more secure than having people from Prague or Budapest singing English. That’s the reason.
Are the classic music elements coming more and more dominating part in the Blind Guardian music during the recent years?
Andre : No, I wouldn’t call it dominating. Because it was we were on the mood to do this, it’s nothing planned. Not that you say; okay, we want to extend the classical partner. It’s just a coincidence that we had made more this time. But we like all of the styles within the Blind Guardian music and I would never say that one should be featured better than another. I like the fast songs as well and we have for example, we have more fast songs on the new album than we had for a long time. I think that’s kind of balance.
Hansi : But it has to make sense to have these elements moving in, in some of the songs because of the Orchestra album. If you listen to Blind Guardian from the first album to this album you would still see the redline. Of course this is the gate if you want to say so, to the classical Orchestral album and definitely it was good that there were so many classical elements. Maybe the one thing enriches the other thing a little bit, but as Andre said; it definitely is not the particular Blind Guardian style. There are songs which may contain a violin or something but they do not depend on other songs, like “At the Edge of Time” certainly depend on the orchestral.
In general metal is a type of classical music, like Nightwish and if we go back in time like Richie Blackmore with the neoclassical guitar style..
Hansi : Yes. I think so too. That is a strong relationship between heavy metal and classical music, because at a certain point if you play it with power chords you will feel that strong momentum and you still see there are moments in the classical music which delivers almost similar attitude.
Andre : The accents, how they build the accents and from the timing. They work with the timings and the rhythms is very, very similar.
The new album BEYOND has a very strong connection to the old album, IMAGINATIONS.
Hansi : Yeah. You are right about that.
Where did you get the idea that you can continue the story of IMAGINATIONS on the new album?
Hansi : That was in between some of the songs, we had the chance to re-visit it and to revisit IMAGINATIONS when we did the Best Of album and the A TRAVELER’S GUIDE TO SPACE AND TIME. But still then when we started song writing I haven’t really thought about it, it was just back in my mind to say that. It just came along when we had four or five songs and I was feeling a similar feeling in-between some of the songs, and I thought we might need a concept for this one. This somehow struck my attention in combination with IMAGINATIONS on the story told and story ends, which is also related to a book I read about that time and that was ‘Doctor Sleep’ by Stephen King. He’s doing the same thing, he is re-visiting a guy. He designed with ‘The Shining’; the boy in ‘The Shining’ is the protagonist in Doctor Sleep. His technique was to revisit the boy later when he became a man, and I was just starting thinking then; what could have happened to my boy which I designed 20 years ago? Then the thing just started, I made decisions which became fact for the boy 20 years ago. I said; he was not daring to take the jump from one world into the other, which he was supposed to do basically, intentionally. I decided he was afraid because he was a child and he did obviously do the wrong decision. The new album deals with that, with taking wrong decisions and with consequences relating to wrong decisions or positive decisions, on this case negative decisions. Then the quest of the boy starts and the listener is invited to follow him on his quest to the red mirror, which would be his portal to this other world and is also invited to quest for sort of holy grail.
When I listened to the “Miracle Machine” song, I started thinking of Queen, but I assume that you are getting more away from the traditional speed metal like being in the ’80s and you are getting more into the progressive and Queen stuff. That has influenced you as well?
Hansi : Yeah, very strong. This came in very early; this came in with TALES FROM THE TWILIGHT WORLD. I have to go back, everyone in Blind Guardian used to be big Queen fans always. It was just in the very beginning where we were so focused on melodic metal that we really did not think about Queen, when we did BATTALIONS and the BLIND. But all over sudden we discovered our passion for Queen before we did the song writing for TALES FROM THE TWILIGHT WORLD, and ever since this has been a very strong impact on our music. To say that; we did not disappear or we did not get away from the melodic speed metal aspect, it is always there. It’s just different because our qualities have slightly changed and would be very strange and we would still do easy power chording, with basically the same chords over and over again. We could do that and it would exhaust our interest in being creative, because there is nothing you can add after a short while. You need very special ideas to do, let your hair down. Like we did in “The Holy Grail” for example, which was a song which originally has been arranged by Fredrick and we just felt; this is a good song, it has potential and it has that link to the past. Then we built it up on it, but you need to plot musically which justifies a speed metal song as in the old days. I am surprised by some of the bands which still do the same thing they have done in the early ’80s or in the ’90s, it’s fascinating at one point but I would be deadly tired to be in such a band. Therefore we need these changes, it doesn’t matter if it’s Queen inspired, if it’s thrash inspired, if it’s new metal inspired or if it’s classical inspired. It doesn’t matter. As long as there is a progress.
PROGRESSION AND DEVELOPMENT
The folk music is a part of this progress?
Hansi : Folk music is a part of this progress. This kind of really shot on the new album, this will be the only thing which I would say is a very valuable Blind Guardian element and direction and just needed to rest. We need that from time to time, just saying… Like I really mentioned maybe the next album will not contain any classical aspect, because we need to rest, to get all minds free from what we have done before. The same can be said about the folkloristic aspect, this was just not on the agenda and we didn’t even talk about it. I came up with one acoustic piece and this was left in something, so we skipped the idea directly.
Do you think the writing a song with the orchestra and classical things with the folk music is challenging because every other band from the same genre is trying to have the same kind of influence. Like Rhapsody have folk music elements, Nightwish has the orchestral thing of course?
Hansi : It’s a part of your natural source and I would say it’s the same with the bands you’ve mentioned. You do not even think about calling it competitors doing something into the same direction, because you basically as a musician see the difference. I see the difference between Nightwish, Rhapsody and Blind Guardian and as you said they are all defined out in style. I would never ever, if I came up with a song like that feel like being challenged to be better or different. This is a natural thing which you just do and at the very end we have to please all sets, there are two judges when a song is created and doesn’t matter which direction it goes and they sit here. If he accept what I have delivered and the other way round. The challenge is done, that’s the challenge. That’s like 80-90%, then the other guys come in and of course producer tell you all fine and then they say, well that’s a B song, that’s a nice song, that’s the master piece of the album. But that doesn’t matter anymore, because then we have the elements for the album and the elements for the song. They are all there and they are all approved in us, and you cannot really rely on anyone else. It’s impossible because if you try to please people, that will be sort of challenging to say; well, I want to please Nightwish listeners. I was please the Rhapsody listeners. I love Blind Guardian, I want to please Blind Guardian listeners but in first case I want to please myself. Therefore this is the only really sort of judging we need, and the challenging aspect is to re-invent ourselves each time.
How do you start writing a new riff, a new song for the Blind Guardian to please yourself?
Andre : It’s different from… It really depends on, for some songs I need to play guitar for a while and then if I find something that keeps myself, a riff something or a melody, I start there and try to put something up. Sometimes I start with orchestra thing and I play with the keyboards and put in guitars and see how it sounds. But I like to experiment with sounds, if it’s like electronic sounds or building up some strange guitar harmonies. If it’s too generic, most of the time it doesn’t kick me I need to find something extraordinary to start something that I say, yeah, that’s an extraordinary idea and from here we can go and see if we find connection to other parts, and build up a song structure.
You still play the bass?
Hansi : Yes.
But who plays the bass on the new album?
Hansi : That’s a guy called Barend Courbois, he’s from the Netherlands and he’s half Dutch, half French. He used to work with Charlie a long, long time ago. When we decided to go for a new bassist, this has been Charlie’s first suggestion. We met the guy and he is super, super nice and he’s a well known bassist in the Netherlands. Because he is not only playing hard rock and heavy metal but also jazz and fusion music, and he’s one of the most renown guest musicians in general. But he can be seen as a constant member for Blind Guardian for as long as he wants basically. He’s not a part of the band, but he is a part of the band song. This is always with Blind Guardian, we are four people. Ever since I have given up the bass we just decided, it stays a drummer to guitarists and the vocalist and the bass will be involved once we needed either by him or by me.
Andre : Like The Rolling Stones. Since Wyman is not there anymore, there is always a bass player but they never brought in somebody new in the band. It would be stupid, everybody knows The Stones how they are, and you cannot imagine a young guy there now who is a part of The Stones. I see the same with us. It’s like we always will be, life is and I don’t see any reason. We have guest musicians and that’s it.
Why Oliver is out?
Hansi : That was an internal decision made, which also was related to his activities for Rhapsody which would have caused interferences at some point. Because you cannot plan things as probably well, so you can keep both provided. That’s impossible.
FROM VIRGIN TO NUCLEAR BLAST
I remember when finding Blind Guardian back in the day via advertisements for the first album FOLLOW THE BLIND in metal magazines. Then you kind of disappeared, because the metal thing went down and another type of metal came out: Grunge and death metal came really big and normal traditional heavy/power metal of the ’80s vanished. When I managed to get a hold of The German Music TV’s METALLA 10 years ago and started watching it, I was, what the hell, they are playing Blind Guardian, Grave Digger and they are still around. Then I picked up the IMAGINATIONS album and realized that you have been putting the albums out during the whole ’90s. For some reason it was really difficult to find your albums outside of Germany, like Finland, even though you were on the Virgin Label. So I thought…
Hansi : Basically that’s the reason.
I thought what they know about a metal band, how they market metal bands because it’s not a typical metal label. How did you manage to have the deal with the Virgin and was it a good ride after all?
Hansi : Yeah. Your impression here in Finland is quite domestic. To be honest, we have been and this is not exaggerating: We have been the most successful metal bands in the ’90s over Europe, not only in Germany. You are right that Grunge took over and all the other bands, they’ve had massive problems. We’ve never had a problem. We became massively big in Japan.
Andre : We were in the German band, was on a major metal band and we were really doing awesome with a major label that was an advantage for us. We became very big and… In ’90s IMAGINATIONS and NIGHTFALL.
Hansi : Your impression here is right, because if you are signed to a major label and if the sister company, foreign territory. Nowadays it’s a little different, it’s a little better. But back then it was like EMI Finland or Virgin, I have no idea who has been in charge. They just said; well, this is nothing we can sell then nothing will happen. For example Sweden grew drastically during the ’90s for us. It was still in ’90s and ’92, with IMAGINATIONS it changed completely and we went up. Finland for example is growing for us ever since we signed to Nuclear Blast So, this has been sort of major conflict which appears here and there, but this has not been the case for many territories. On the other hand you are right, apart from Finland metal was dead in England for more than just 10 years. Therefore we never happened in the UK, we have had big issues to get a foot into the American market, North American market. South America was always big for us. So, if you relate Finland, UK and North America. You see that territories where we were really small eventually, which was somehow related to the scene, to the downfall of heavy metal if you want say so. But in all the other territories we made a very straight development to the top, and that’s not only Germany but lots of the Southern European market which always have been fun for us. We were ready to take over; basically we were the best in some of the territories. Like Germany and Spain and Italy, we definitely have been the band. At the end of ’90s and the beginning of 21st century we took over and luckily I can say that the situation has been stable in a sense.
Hansi : No. We never had a deal.
Andre : Only for North America.
Do you think things are going to be interesting because there is a lot of bands, In Flames, they are going to have a new Slayer album out and your album is coming out – How are they going to market that some bands don’t feel that they have been isolated?
Hansi : We will have to see. Right now we are the main priority whenever we are releasing the album. I know that…Which usually is good for the label and once they get a foot into different marketing directions, this can be beneficial. Like Slayer will have a different sort of genre they would cover in terms of media than Blind Guardian. But you might be able to use the Blind Guardian media for Slayer and the other way around. I’m confident about that, that something which might take place at point. But we believe in the longevity of our music and the strengths of our creativity. So, whoever is going to become a part of the Nuclear Blast Family; it’s welcomed and has nothing to do with us. I really don’t look at it like this.
Andre : I don’t think we are so dependent on promotion or distribution, we have our standing and we have our fan base. Everybody will know when we release an album.
Hansi : Still it’s not as we sell or something.
Andre : Yes. But it’s not the main issue. I think the main issue is the quality of the album and the fans will look for something new, and they will see if we release something or not. The people who like to listen to our music will go for it anyway.
Thanks for your time and I hope you are going to have a good gig in Finland in June.
Hansi : Thank you very much, yeah. We will make sure it’s not the only one.