HELLOWEEN – The Right for Power
At the end of the following conversation with Helloween guitarist Michael Weikath, I revealed the fact that I’ve been following this veteran power metal act since my teenage years when "Walls of Jericho" hit the streets. In his happy go luck style, he quickly quips:
"Ah… You are still so young (at 44)…. I’m 52!"
To say this is a bucket list interview is an understatement. Pioneers of the European power metal movement, they were one of the first bands in the genre to gain international appeal, wide spread video access, and sell hundreds of thousands of records throughout the 1980’s. "My God Given Right" is the newest Helloween platter to hit the market – another testament to the consistency of the pumpkin brigade’s output.
Mistaking the correct time conversion from Europe to America to schedule this interview, I quickly re-gained my bearings after firing up the laptop and found this a very relaxing and informative chat regarding a lot of the tenets and principles that make Helloween the well-respected and revered band they’ve become for decades. Enjoy!
"My God Given Right" is Helloween’s 15th studio album in your 32nd year as a band. Did you ever imagine such a long lasting, fruitful career, and is it as exciting today to make a record as it was in the "Walls of Jericho" days?
"Yes it is, particularly with the new end analog gadgets that (producer) Charlie (Bauerfiend) bought. That sound kicks us up so much, and you can do things digitally that are good, astounding and feeling nice. When we did the "Rabbit Don’t Come Easy" record we had an exemplary good guitar sound in the studio- or so it seemed. But then when you add these analog audio gadgets that he bought recently- this is responsible for the harmonically expansive sound that you hear on the new record. Equalizers, limiters, and compressors, digital analog transformers that he was able to put into the digital loop. So when it comes to recording he put them in and it does make a difference as far as the sound, that’s what you get to hear because it was his main intention to have the production going in more of a 1980’s direction. That’s what we did, and this is as appealing and thrilling as when we did the first recordings or going to different studios or working with Tommy Hansen and Tommy Newton. I never get enough of that really."
With 4 productive and prolific songwriters in the band, how does the group come to terms with deciding what makes the final product on an album?
"That’s getting harder because you have too much material. We have a new term that we call a luxury problem, that’s a good thing. We had about 31 demos that were collected on the internet server to download and listen to. From there we would make a selection of what everybody deemed best, along with the manager and producer because among the band members you would maybe have a fight or frustration because naturally everyone would like to have his particular baby, the tracks that you wrote on the next record if possible. With this kind of selection process you have a lot less hurt with the producer saying things, he can tell you if it’s a good track but maybe not for this album. That really, really helps – as well as the manager being more like a consumer, he simply sometimes doesn’t understand particular tracks. He may struggle with seeing what a particular demo track could be- so he’s more or less there to go straight from his gut, and even that helps sometimes. This is a process that we have been using ever since the "Keepers of the Seven Keys- The Legacy" album. With uploading demos to a server that has worked since "Gambling with the Devil" and that has proved to be a real good thing. A lot less heartache and hurt goes into the selection process.
The thing is if you have Markus (Grosskopf- bassist) do these great amazing tracks like "Far from the Stars" (off "Straight Out of Hell"), that’s really good. When the muse kissed him, that you can’t really tell who did this chorus- was it (Andi) Deris, was it Weikath, was it Markus? It’s really cool when it comes to that. I hope that these things will come to fruition a few more times, it’s always ups and downs like the biological balance that goes through everything that we do in life. We as a band, we are just trying to come up with as much as possible."
"Lost in America" relates a true story for the band when it came to leaving South America on one recent tour. Have you grown accustomed to delays/ mishaps when it comes to airplanes these days, and how do you overcome mentally and physically all the jet-lag and time zone changes that occur?
"How we survive it, I don’t actually know- but you need sometimes where you need a little bag of sleep. If you don’t get that then you just feel miserable and you don’t know where to put yourself. If necessary you just have to sleep while you are waiting, that’s kind of like the only measure that you can (use to) cure that stress. On the other hand, some of us are using melatonin to overcome jet lag and stuff. Sometimes, you know about odd sleeping patterns, if possible it’s just adjusting my sleep pattern to what is coming next. I even plan not sleeping too early here, so then I can sleep a little bit later somewhere else. You get what you get- how we cope with that I don’t really know. One thing is the travelling for itself, there are always things happening where they may be problems with the plane, or something else at the airport and you have to wait, flights get cancelled- we are pretty used to that. We will have an ice cream, a smoke, a drink, something to eat- you try to bridge the gap that just opened and then you know you have a few hours to remain. As long as the iPad battery holds up- which is good with the 6+ version in comparison to the regular models. If you are bored you can play video games, read something if you have online access."
Dani Noble to me is one of the most impressive drummers in the metal genre – balancing out solid grooves with amazing timing and speed changes. Does this allow the other band members a chance to stretch when figuring out the directions they want certain songs to go?
"Absolutely. Whatever he does… I’m doing pretty much detailed demos on the tracks I come up with. It’s structured the way I want things to be in the end, so that the manager can look at things and see if the patterns are there or not. Whatever ideas he comes up with, the way he goes about the structuring you can guarantee it’s going to be a lot better than anything you would have come up with. He takes his time, about half a year of getting familiar with the new tracks. He is a wunderkind in a way, what he does is amazing- world class drumming with no remorse. He likes the challenge, he calls it the sport of exercises."
Another aspect I enjoy is even as Helloween albums have gotten longer thanks to the CD format, you still understand how to construct a front to back experience that has enough versatility and dynamic difference so as to not exhaust or bore the listener… is this something you are conscious of?
"Which is very important for us, and it’s not easy. Yes, we are conscious of this. I don’t like these long and lengthy, epic things… we’ve been doing double vinyl material ever since the "Keeper Part 3 Legacy" record, and sometimes I feel we need to cut the length of records a little bit shorter. There was a time when it was a must to add more tracks because value for money was coming up, I don’t know if you are not crucifying your own creativity with so much output on each album. As you mention, we’ve succeeded in building up the listening experience on a single CD. It comes across hard in a way, I can only follow a band like Soilwork, Aerosmith, or Def Leppard album, the new Whitesnake- with the compressed sounds of nowadays, the intensity of today’s recordings and top notch productions, I find it hard to listen to more than five tracks in one go. It shouldn’t be a nuisance to listen to a full album. The last one I could listen to all the way through is surprisingly Aerosmith "Nine Lives". I have trouble with other albums."
How do you balance out the fans expectations on what they want out of Helloween versus satisfying your own personal creative output as a musician?
"We try to balance what’s there. Certainly I abstain from doing too many obvious commercial type tracks like "Can Do It" or "Do You Feel Good". I don’t do anything like that anymore, I’ve created the stuff that I want to show that is possible and the reception wasn’t as much as I expected or hoped it would be. I go back to what the fans expect from Helloween. Doing commercial numbers like that takes a lot of work, you work on the details because the structures aren’t difficult but you want to have the main impact of the simplified guitars, the set up of the track to be optimal so that can take time. If there are less things I would rather do regular Helloween tracks, I am just talking about myself. This is the state of things. Deris or (guitarist Sascha) Gerstner, or Markus are aware of what they want. You can see if you have a result of what the other guys are doing if you know if you’ve heard it before, you can tailor things in a certain direction."
Do you have any particular preferences at this point when it comes to the studio or the stage? Or particular size of venues you play in comparison to festivals?
"No really, that doesn’t matter to me. Whether it’s a shabby club where you have a tree in the middle of it- which we have done before. There was a venue called the Tree Club, even that I don’t care about. It’s a pain in the attic, on the other hand you are there to serve your fans. It’s not your fans fault that the club is the way it is, they pay the entrance fee and they want to see you and support you. Sometimes in order to make due with a schedule you have to put some not so great dates in there – there can be long distances between places in the United States for instance- so you need to play these shows to cover your expenses. Back to your question, we don’t really care what it is, whether it’s a huge festival like a Woodstock in Poland, official numbers of 360,000 people to unofficial ones of 720,000 people – and the latter is more correct based on the sea of people that you see out there. Or like a small club and only 50 people show up- well we serve the 50 people that come."
I remember watching the Headbangers’ Ball special when they filmed Helloween, Armored Saint, and Grim Reaper for that special show in the 80’s in Minnesota – are they any specific recollections you have about that show and tour, and do you think it really opened things up for you in North America?
"Maybe, and for sure. You can take this as the document that is there from that time. I just recall that most of the time I felt quite miserable because I still had some hormonal troubles going on which didn’t make me feel healthy at all. I look like crap, I couldn’t quickly reconsider… the clothes were the clothes that we wore and somehow you hope that it would come across good. I think in that aspect that was a no go. These are things that you learn from. The other guys look brilliant. It was a sign of the times and a document you can look at. I had to learn from what I saw and the way it was. I thought it was a great appearance, a great video and it stands for what we were doing at the time. It doesn’t capture all the madness and intensity that we witnessed at that time. How huge the reaction was at that point in our career, that doesn’t show."
How has the band adapted to the changing marketing / promotional aspects in comparison to the pre-internet period of the 1980’s and early 90’s?
"You are still adapting in a way. There is a new blog with videos, reviews, and stuff. I still can’t get it into my head most of the time, and I’m not sure the creators of online magazines if they know what else is around. They are having their own location, they know about themselves but who knows how many more related links you could come up with for people that are doing similar stuff. This is building up, a force to be reckoned with that really takes place. As long as you have blogs, Facebook pages, Twitter accounts- in that way you can promote so much. If there is a guy or girl doing something, I’ve seen so many professional approaches by semi-professional people that their output is amazing. They are amassing a lot of information, and if you take your time to click through all these things and familiarize yourself with it, it sure gives you things you never heard about and knowledge you never thought you’d have. Which sure wasn’t possible with the regular publications like Hit Parader or any of these magazines back then, or radio broadcasts. If there was a radio broadcast and you missed it, you can now find a recording of it. Who can possibly get all this into one’s head? I don’t know- but this helps against the directional positioning of major media and what they put on you. You for sure have an alternative."
Where do you place the importance of friendship and chemistry in relation to keeping things professional for Helloween?
"That’s the most important thing and why our lineup is functioning like this for 11 years. That’s the most important thing that you just said."
How do you feel about the state of heavy metal in your home country – as Germany is consider the metal mecca and hotbed to most internationally, especially in terms of quality bands, tours, and festivals through the years?
"Even though this island that I’m on in Spain is kind of like a province, there is not much with metal here. In mainland Spain it’s a different thing. I’m walking around here and I don’t get much- there’s a lot of techno pop and rave stuff. People here have short hair, it’s rare to get to see long haired people where I am. When we go to festivals and we see how many people get there and how strong the movement is. There are interest groups who want to discuss this away but the tens of thousands of people are always there. They bring their own buddies, with their cars and everything they’ve got. There is a strong interest in even extreme metal- which I don’t get how that happens. You see these extreme festivals and people are having a great time. I think it’s more about the event than any single artist that would show up- as long as it’s like this we have nothing to fear."
What have been standout memories in the career of Helloween from your perspective- either from a song, album, or touring/ festival experience?
"It’s the little things and it’s those big things that we talked about. The Tree club, Woodstock Festival… Bloodstock Festival in the UK. That was impressive, how they go about organizing their things, do the burgers and stuff. It was close to Birmingham, the fans went to hotel rooms because they had a heat wave going on. Or when you go to Borneo and you meet the sultan, you have dinner with him. There is a big presentation at his palace and then you do the concert, you are being brought there by a ferry boat and you do the show on a little remote island. There are too many things, if I wanted to I could discuss this for a while and you would have to wait too long and probably fall asleep (laughs). I seem to have a good memory of things, I always seem to forget dates and when something was but I never forget places and things that I’ve seen. I still have recollection of the things that I was doing when I was 3 years old. You collect so much in your brain that you will never forget."
What does the touring situation look like over the next six to twelve months for Helloween? Are there any particular areas of the world you would like to hit but haven’t been able to as of yet?
"There are many places I would like to play, I could make a big list of where we ought to be and want to be, that would take too long as well. If I said one country, another one would be sad or angry and I can’t do that. We are about to play 20 festival shows next, after the Loud Park festival in Japan we are going 10 hours by plane to Australia and we will play 5 shows there. And then we have a marker in the manager’s online calendar that says somewhere in mid-February a headlining tour of which we have no dates yet."