Interview by Marko Syrjala and Arto Lehtinen
Avantasia live pictures by Marko Syrjala
Avantasia is about to release the 8th opus called MOONGLOW on Nuclear Blast. Avantasia, led by Tobias Sammet, has again created a magical journey into the world of fantasy and spell. MOONGLOW once again testifies why Avantasia has become such a huge name, selling out big venues and arenas. The album contains several well-known names as well. Metal-Rules.Com sat down with the leader and the maestro of Avantasia, Tobias Sammet, to talk about the new album and touring plans.
You have said in various interviews that MOONGLOW is the most adorned and detailed album you’ve ever produced. What do you mean by that statement?
Tobias Sammet: It means that there’s so much going on. I mean, there was always a lot going on, but this has so embellished the album. There are so little details, and everything has been so well-considered, but that doesn’t mean that it’s been overproduced or something like that. It just means that we gave the songs the time they needed to develop, take things out sometimes, and add little aspects. To do crazy things like, even after a song was almost finished, to say, “We need a Celtic harp replacing the keyboard harp. How can we get a Celtic harp?” We were watching YouTube clips of Celtic harp players. Said, “Oh, she is the best. We have to get her.” Well, we just know the name.
We have to find her. Things like that, it was a very, very creative way of working and it was also, because we had so much time to finish the album, after the Ghostlights -tour, there was nothing in the schedule: no deadline, nothing, no Edguy album, no Avantasia album. There were no contracts even for any of the two bands. Just the Edgar anniversary that was there, but that didn’t mean I had to write a completely new album. I just contributed two songs, and the others contributed. Some of them I wrote half of the songs the others did, and we did the book. But there was not anything in particular that I had to– I didn’t have a schedule to live up to, and that was a great relief for me. So, I just kept writing, collecting ideas without pressure. Not even knowing will it be a solo album or will it be an Avantasia album? I was just collecting basic ideas.
And I thought I’ve got to find myself a hobby. I’ve been working in music for so long now that I got to find myself a different hobby, and, of course, I built a studio. I know, I know, it’s not exactly getting away from the music business. I built a studio. But then it granted me the luxury that I didn’t have to leave the house whenever I had an idea. I could work even with less pressure. And I worked there, and I embellished ideas and put them in the right order and gave them to Sascha to get feedback and have him do some things about it. And after a while, I realized, “Well, I think I’m afraid we’re working on a new Avantasia album right now again.” And that’s what we did. We kept working but without a deadline. And I didn’t know, I said, “Okay, maybe it’s going to come out in two years, maybe in three years. I have no clue. Let’s just work.”
Meanwhile, I contacted an attorney. In the past, I always had negotiated the deals myself. I didn’t want to have to deal with it. I hired an attorney to get me a record deal. And everybody was interested at the time. The word got out that Avantasia is free. But we ended up being with Nuclear Blast again because, all in all, they don’t suck. They are a good company, let’s face it. They have all the benefits of a major company, but still, they know exactly their markets, all their markets. So, they have the advantage of an independent company as well.
And because Nuclear Blast isn’t a too big label, it makes many things easier to implement?
Tobias Sammet: No, they’re not too big, but they’re not exactly small. And they gave me a great budget to do all these crazy things, work with gospel choirs, and hire a guy who usually did the old vocals for that world music project, Gregorian, who does pop songs in Gregorian chants style. This guy was singing on the album too, and we did all different kinds of things, and we took a lot of time for everything. I often went to England to hang out in a nice hotel and then go to nice pubs. To be creative and see what happens. So I took my equipment with me to the hotel. All the neighbors in the rooms next to me were probably very happy about that, but I wasn’t too noisy. Anyway, it was a very relaxed way of working, and I think that’s why we had all the time to let the material grow and embellish it and detail the stuff.
THE THEME OF MOONGLOW
As far as the lyrical theme is concerned, is there some kind of story on the MOONGLOW album as the previous GHOSTLIGHT had?
Tobias Sammet: Yeah, yeah. It’s a conceptual album. It’s a conceptual album, but it’s not a rock opera in the sense that the songs tell every aspect, every detailed aspect, of a novel or something like that. Because when you write conceptual albums like a Broadway musical, you have to explain a lot. And explanations are usually pretty unpoetic. It’s when you explain, when you start to connect the dots for everybody and say, “Okay, and then they go, and two hours later they are saying this,” it doesn’t leave much room. In a lyric, you only have so much room to write words. It doesn’t leave much to be poetic. So, I didn’t want to connect the dots. I just wanted to throw in the dots and have people connect it. It’s not a novel. It’s not a storyline in the way that’s it a metal opera or a rock opera musical Broadway thing. It is a conceptual album, and it’s a very coherent world. The subtitle of the album is “Narratives of a Misplaced Entity.”
And it’s about a character, a creature, that is created into a world where it doesn’t find a connection to his environment, where it doesn’t arrive, where it doesn’t see a place to fit in. And it doesn’t feel comfortable, and it doesn’t really arrive in the bright world of the bold and the beautiful, and therefore, it seeks shelter in the dark. And it becomes a nocturnal creature being at peace with himself when it’s in the dark in the absence of the world of the bold and the beautiful and the light and the bright things. And in that dark, he finds something that seems to offer him a way out of misery and out of his isolation. And so those songs are, I would say, ten pictures from the world of thought of that creature. So, it’s not telling a full story, but it’s based on a story. Each song is a depiction of one aspect, or an individual perspective, of the life of that creature.
So, what was to be very important was that I wanted to create lyrics that were important to me. Something where I could speak about something that I wanted to speak about, personal stuff: Let out things of my own life, personality, and experience. Write very personal things, but at the same time, wrap them up in a fantastic Victorian setting. In a conceptual story, or a conceptual world, that has been heavily inspired by the great writers of the Victorian revival of the Gothic novel like Arthur Machen, Algernon Blackwood, William Somerset Maugham, who wrote “The Magician,” and Edgar Allan Poe, these kinds of writers. Tim Burton also a little bit. It’s that Victorian era. I wanted to create a grotesque, imaginative world, dark Victorian-era stuff. But, at the same time, I didn’t want to write a complete novel. I wanted to write individual poems that would work on their own, each one. But at the same time, together, they would be a part of a bigger picture.
How about that cover song “Maniac”? How does it fit with the rest of the material, in your opinion?
Tobias Sammet: Not at all. But it was meant to be a bonus track. I wanted to do that cover version just for the pure joy of doing it because I like that song so much. And Sascha said, ” Oh, no. Oh my God. It’s been done so often. Don’t do it.” And I said, “I don’t care.” It may not be reasonable, but pushing the right button is something you have to do when you’re working at a nuclear plant and not when you are rock and roll. Rock and Roll is about pushing a button and then seeing what happens. And that’s something I wanted to do. So, we did that song. It was meant to be a bonus track, and then I said, “Let’s put it on the album.” It doesn’t fit in there. Of course, it fits, and you could construct it into the concept because it’s also about a nocturnal creature that is only at peace with herself when she dances. So, it’s about a freak as well. And the album is about a freak, about a nocturnal freak. So, it’s kind of– it’s both about misfits.
But the song was– to me, it was a very, very important cornerstone to balance out that sophisticated rest of the album. We have so many long songs, and we have four songs that are way over an average duration. So, it’s a very sophisticated album, sometimes not even easy to be– not very accessible in passages. So, I said, “Let’s take this song, “Maniac,” and balance out that sophisticated stuff a little bit. Let’s make it a real album track.” And that’s why I also got in Eric Martin because it sounded a bit boring just with my voice. With a duet, and he did a great job singing. He’s got a great, great, great, soulful voice. His contribution ensured that the song seemed to fit more into the context of Avantasia. It feels like an Avantasia song, although it’s conceptually something completely different.
THE COVER ART
As for the art of the album cover, each cover of Avantasia is somehow related to lyrics and the content of the album. Is it the same thing with GHOSTLIGHT?
Tobias Sammet: Absolutely.
In my opinion, the covers of all Avantasia albums are, at the same time, a bit scary, but they are also very beautiful and unique in their way. Do you agree with that?
Tobias Sammet: Absolutely. I was looking for artists to do our cover artwork, and I wanted to have something reminiscent of Tim Burton, a Tim Burton movie. And I found this Swedish artist who did paintings for children’s books. And I said, “Wow. That’s grotesque.” He did some of the most grotesque artworks, and that was for children’s books. It was eerie in a way but beautiful at the same time. I thought, “I need to ask that guy.” I didn’t know him. I contacted him, found out about him on the internet. Okay. Later on, it turned out that he was a very famous Swedish painter, a very famous guy. And he does books and everything, and he’s got more than 600,000 followers on Facebook, which is not bad for somebody who paints children’s books. So, yeah. And he did that, and he wanted to know what this– I told him about the album, and he said, “Okay. What’s in the lyrics? What is that character about? What does he experience? What does he feel?”
I said like, “Okay.” So, I explained the songs to him. I sent him the lyrics of “Ghost in the Moon,” and I said, “This pretty much sums up the whole atmosphere of the album and the whole setting, that Victorian setting and this Frankenstein “Beauty and the Beast” type of eerieness.” And I gave it to him, and he came up with that– he came up with that picture, with a sketch, with that vortex and that creature. Also, that expressionism, this expressionist – expressionist, is that the right word? – Expressionist style, how those scissor cuts, paper cuts, shapes, how they show what he’s going through in the first song. And then, how he’s dragged into a wonderful new dimension. The whole thing was so artful and beautiful. I said, “Okay. This guy’s heaven-sent.”
I can’t wait to see the final version of the cover. It will look amazing on vinyl!
Tobias Sammet: I can’t wait, too. And also, I put a lot of work and effort into the limited edition of the CD. We will have an art book with a 60-something pages booklet. It’s very, very tall. It’s as big as vinyl, and it’s a book, like a yearbook. And we have 68 or 64 pages. There is a “making of” in there, and what is most important is I have been heavily influenced by a painter called John Atkinson Grimshaw, a Victorian painter. I have paintings of him, replica paintings on the wall of my study at home. And I look at it when I play the piano. I have this castle in the moonlight, very sinister, eerie paintings of the 19th century. And I bought the rights to those paintings, and we have this graphic book, this art book with all the paintings in there that belong to the lyrics, inspiring paintings. And the whole thing is very, very– it’s a piece of art as a whole. And I’m very proud of it.
THE SPECIAL GUESTS
Once again, you have many familiar great guests on the album. There are vocalists with whom you’ve worked in the past like Geoff Tate, Michael Kiske, Hansi Kürsch, Jørn Lande, Bob Catley, and Ronnie Atkins. But also a couple of new and really surprising names like Mille Metrozza. Stylistically, he’s completely different from any singer you’ve worked with before, and him you’re exploring completely new areas. Is this something you will and or want to do more in the future? I mean, do you always want to expand your sound and scale when it’s possible?
Tobias Sammet: I’ve always been open to all different sorts of musical styles. I’ve never been a huge fan of grunting and growling.
Do you mean black metal and stuff like that?
Tobias Sammet: Yeah. To me, that type of– it’s always been a very cheap effect for bands who were not successful on their quest for a singer [laughter].
I was thinking about Shagrath singing the “evil” side.
Tobias Sammet: Well, as an effect, I think I could imagine that Shagrath is unique. Or Dani of Cradle of Filth, they have a unique voice at what they do. But some of these modern bands that have beautiful vocals and then somebody shouting in between, it’s so predictable, I think in some ways. But I don’t want to judge anybody. Anyway, with Mille, he’s been a friend of mine for very, very long. We’ve known each other for more than 20 years. He’s been singing on an Edguy record before. And we knew that someday he would have to work with me on an Avantasia album. That was the plan. There was never really the right passage. But this time, there was. And Mille is an exception, vocally. He’s a force of nature. There’s nothing artificial about what Mille does. He is a force of nature. It’s the truth, a real deal. And when you see Create Alive, which I really enjoy, it’s very, very primal energy coming from the stage, and that’s also because of Mille. I mean, he’s a true artist, and he’s an original. And that’s why it was, of course, an enrichment. It was great. And it’s unexpected. And Mille was like, “Oh, I got to work hard [laughter]. I got to really– I don’t want to mess this up with being on an album with Geoff Tate [laughter].” Mille, I don’t want to mess this up. You have all these great singers and being on the same song with Hansi Kürsch and Ronnie Atkins, and Jørn Lande. And so, Mille is very open-minded, too. I mean, he laughs about some kinds of music that I like.
And he’s a huge KISS fan as well.
Tobias Sammet: Yeah, of course. Yeah. And Mille is very open-minded, and they have this screaming thrash metal icon saying, “Oh, I don’t want to mess this up. I’m on one song with Jørn Lande, and I’m on a record with Geoff Tate [laughter].” Which I thought was really funny [laughter].
Another fascinating guest on the album, of course, is Miss Candice Night.
Tobias Sammet: Oh, yeah. Yeah.
How did this your cooperation begin?
Tobias Sammet: We had the song, and I had an idea for the voice that should be in the song. I just didn’t know who could be that voice. But then, it needed to be– the melody in that song is very complicated to sing because it’s huge steps that the voice has to sing in a very quick time. It’s a demanding vocal passage, the chorus. And at the same time– so it has to be powerful. It has to be spot on, tuning-wise. And at the same time, in verse, there are very, very, very calm elements and very innocent, and it needed a real innocent voice that could sing powerful and technically very demanding stuff. And I felt like, who could that be? That innocent, world music, Celtic influenced soft part in the beginning, and then that anthemic demanding element in the chorus? And I went through my record collection and Candice Night. It’s intuition. You can’t plan these kinds of things. And we asked her if she listened to the track, and they said, “It’s a really beautiful track. Yeah, I want to do it.” Great. And we got it back and said, “Yep. That’s how it’s supposed to be.”It made it [laughter].
Did you know that this is not the first time she’s singing on this type of music? A couple of years ago, she sang on one of the recent Helloween albums as well.
Tobias Sammet: I heard that. I may have that album; which one is it?
It was THE LEGACY, KEEPER OF THE SEVEN KEYS album.
Tobias Sammet: Oh, I don’t have that one.
You once again have a great line-up on this new album. Was there anybody you tried to get, but it didn’t happen for a reason or another?
Tobias Sammet: Yes. Of course. The same vocalist that I always try to get that I never get.
Tobias Sammet: No. Bruce Dickinson. Every time, it’s a running joke already, but he is not available for things like that right now, not yesterday, and not the year before, and not the year before, and probably not in the next 20 years. But never say never.
The Avantasia band started 19 years ago. Since 2010, you have had a stable backing band, the same guys. Before that, you were always using different guys. But this is more like a real band with Sascha and Miro, or how do you see that?
Tobias Sammet: It’s a real band without the democracy [laughter].
But I think it looks like a band, more than what it was at the beginning?
Tobias Sammet: It is. We are friends. We are friends, and it’s always good to rely on people. And of course, when you surround yourself with people, you’ve got to make sure you surround yourself with better people than you because if you’re surrounded by people who are better than you, you will get better. If you’re a weak person in character, you will surround yourself with people that are weaker because you’re afraid. But that way you will not develop. I am happy to be surrounded by people who can outshine me and that are better. It’s not about outshining anybody. But I’m surrounded by great people. Miro and Sascha are amazing people. Felix is an amazing drummer. It’s great people, and I’m very, very thankful for having these people around me and having these people, Ollie Hartmann, having these people tour with me, but it’s not really a band. It feels like a tribe and a family, but I make the decisions, and that’s something that I’m happy with because, well, if you see what democracy leads to, you’ve got to take a look at the Beatles. They were successful, but they were around for eight years or something like that.
By the way, is Avantasia celebrating its 20’th anniversary in 2019?
Tobias Sammet: Yeah, next year. A friend of mine told me just [laughter]. And we also figured out, “Oh, Edguy is going to be 30 years old pretty soon!”
That’s true also, but regarding Avantasia, I guess you’re going to have some kind of celebration, it’s the anniversary year. Are you going to have some sort of special things planned already?
Tobias Sammet: No. I didn’t even realize that it was an anniversary until a friend of mine told me. Four weeks ago, or something like that, a friend of mine said, “Next year is going to be your 20th anniversary, and in 2020 it’s going to be the 20th anniversary of the first release.” I said, “Oh. Great.” But right now, I don’t think about it. It hasn’t been around constantly, so I don’t know if there should be a birthday or an anniversary because it was a one-off project in the beginning. Of course, from 2006 to 20077, we revived it, but there’s no time for anniversary celebrations. I just did it with Edguy, and it was great to do that anniversary, and also it was great to look back and pat ourselves on the shoulder and say, “Oh, great, what we’ve achieved,” and everything, but there are so many other things to be done, and I don’t know. Maybe we’ll do an anniversary show at Wacken Open Air.
Tobias Sammet: Honestly, no clue [laughter].
The tour starts in March, and you have stated that the show will be the biggest you have ever done. So, what’s going to be different this time? Is it going to be more pyros, more guest singers, or whatever, bigger venues?
Tobias Sammet: Bigger places. First of all, we’re going to play bigger stages on average, and we will build the stage set accordingly. They’re right now building the stage set. And I’m very happy with the ideas that are floating around. Right now, they are trying to make everything being realistically put together. So, we need to make it able to be taken around. So, we’re going to have a big stage. We’re going to have more backing singers. We’re going to have– right now; we’re talking about effects that we haven’t had in the past. And, of course, the bigger venues don’t only mean that you have nicer backstage areas because it also means that you can bring more stuff on stage! [laughter].
And everything is going to be more expensive and…
Tobias Sammet: Yeah. And it’s always for the tour management, the people who do the calculation, and the production managers. I was like, “Oh, no, no [laughter]. Tell Toby we’re playing clubs [laughter].”
What size are venues where you’re playing in Germany? I have seen you at Wacken a couple of times, and there were huge.
Tobias Sammet: The stages are not bigger than in Wacken [laughter]. No, no. But we’re playing arenas. The smallest one is, I think, two and a half thousand. The biggest one is 13. And the stages are accordingly. Of course, in some places, when we go to the US, for example, the venues are usually theaters. But that is a different stage anyway because we won’t bring our trucks to the US. It’s a different stage set, then. But we try to come up with a big stage set where most of the key elements work everywhere. And I don’t want to promise too much right now. That’s why I can’t speak about details because then in the end, if I say, “We’re going to have this and that and that,” and our production management will say, “No Toby, we won’t, because otherwise, you will be bankrupt [laughter].” But they are putting it together right now, and the scenery will be great.
Who are going to be the guest singers on tour?
Tobias Sammet: Well, I can tell you some of them. But of course, I won’t print that on a poster because if somebody gets a scrotal hernia before the tour, then I don’t want people to say, “We’re going to give our tickets back.”
What are the plans now?
Tobias Sammet: Well, the plan now, we’re applying for visas. That’s always a pretty good indication. We’re applying for visas for Jørn Lande, Ronnie Atkins, Eric Martin, Bob Catley, Geoff Tate, Herbie Langhans, of course, the whole band, and two female backing singers that you may use not have heard about. And let’s see what else happens. We have a very, very good line-up so far.
Geoff Tate is an interesting choice. Is he going to do the whole tour?
Tobias Sammet: He is going to do the whole tour.
If I remember right, Tate did a few shows on the previous tour?
Tobias Sammet: For two shows. He did Switzerland and Wacken and the tour warm-up -show in Spain.
Right, and I read somewhere in his interview that he went to meet his former Queensryche bandmates in Spain?
Tobias Sammet: Yeah, he went. Yeah, and he was like, it was great seeing the old members of the Queensrÿche band when he played with Avantasia in Spain. It was Rock Fest or something like that. He was going there. I met him in the lobby, and I said, “Where are you going?” “Oh, I want to go to the festival.” And I said, “Now? We’re on in 12 hours.” He said, “Yeah, I want to meet my former bandmates.” “Cool.” So, he went there; he said hi, and– he’s a great guy. He’s a great singer. I’m very, very honored to be on stage with that.
As a young kid, you dream of that. I listened to OPERATION: MINDCRIME back in fourth and RAGE FOR ORDER. Great album. Amazing album. MINDCRIME and RAGE FOR ORDER are my favorite albums. Queensryche and Geoff have always been so influential to me. And all of a sudden, you’re standing next to him, and he’s singing like a god. And he is singing like a god. Still, 30 years later, he can hit those notes, and his voice has got such a special timbre. And I was introducing him, I remember, I didn’t plan to say that, but I was so taken by sitting next to Geoff Tate. I was screaming at the audience, introducing him like, “Ladies and gentlemen, this is not a hologram, this is fucking Geoff Tate [laughter]!” And he was laughing onstage. He was like, “Oh no, stop it [laughter].” But he’s a very, very, very nice guy. It’s a great honor. What he did on the Moonglow album is superb. He did a great, great, great job. And it’s an honor. He’s so nice, funny, a wine lover, and he qualifies in every possible way to be on tour with Avantasia [laughter].
Have you tasted his wines?
Tobias Sammet: Yeah. After the first show we’d done, he asked me just, “Toby, do you prefer red or white wine?” I said, “Oh well, I drink both. I prefer red wine.” It was a normal conversation. And five days after the tour was over, UPS was ringing [laughter]. And I got a huge box of his wine. And a little letter. “Thanks, Toby. It was great to rock out with you.” And yeah. He’s a very nice guy. And unfortunately, his wine is so good that there’s nothing left of it anymore [laughter].
You have to ask for more [laughter].
Tobias Sammet: I will get more. After the next tour, I will get more [laughter].
THE OFFICIAL AVANTASIA SITES ON WEB
OFFICIAL MOONGLOW TRAILER
THE LYRIC VIDEO OF “RAVEN CHILD” SINGLE