KAI HANSEN – Interview
HELLOWEEN – Interview with Kai Hansen
I believe Helloween happened to be my first real contact with power metal. Like, listened to albums and tons of songs of the same band, rather than just ‘hear this bit, ah, this solo’ etc of songs I don’t even know what they were when I was young. But with Helloween I did get more curious and got caught in their epic songs and riffs and vocals and madness.
Many years later, one of the most influential German metal bands decides to redo the math and put together an album with 3 singers. Just because they happened to recently reunite for a tour called "PUMPKINS UNITED" (which got a bit postponed due the current world situation). Having had had the chance to listen to the promo of the whole album, I must say I’m rather nicely impressed by what they managed. It’s as genuine and as Helloween’ish as it can get. Originally planned for the live performances only, it was the birth of a unique seven piece metal alliance for a band with 35 years of metal history.
The base of this milestone album was already erected in the studio: using the original drum kit of Ingo Schwichtenberg, the recording was done with the same modulators at the Hamburg HOME studios where back then ”Master Of The Rings“, ”The Time Of The Oath“ and ”Better Than Raw“ were recorded. Completely analog and under the eyes of long term producer Charlie Bauerfeind and co-producer Dennis Ward, the UNITED impact travelled to New York and got the final mix in the Valhalla Studios of Ronald Prent (Iron Maiden, Def Leppard, Rammstein).
Besides all musical competence, it is also the special enthusiasm that defines HELLOWEEN. Michael Weikath characterizes in his own way: ”It is the incomprehensible encounter of seven musicians who are working as friends and even family and created something that no one would have thought it could be possible. It is like awaking from a sleep but still being in an incredible dream“. Returnee Kai Hansen reflects: ”Being in the studio with my old companions after 30 years was very emotional for me. But at the same time it was a completely different experience with the ‘new‘ boys. The collaboration of different songwriters and strong characters made the album very special: a unique mix with reminiscences from all chapters of the band’s history. HELLOWEEN is a big part of my life and I am looking forward to celebrating the songs live for and with our fans“! From another perspective Markus Grosskopf agrees: ”For me, being one of the last “survivors” who played every note from the beginning, it was a fantastic experience and a very emotional process. I think everyone can hear it on this album. I love it“.
Having had read all the promo info and being so quickly hooked by the album, I was very happy to be offered the chance to have a chat with Kai Hansen and try to get more insights into the work that led to the simply titled release ‘Helloween’ . out June 18th via Nuclear Blast
Artwork by Eliran Kantor
Me: The PR team that wrote the album promo has done a fantastic job introducing it that I don’t even have to ask you too many questions to get a good idea about the album
KH: So that means that I don’t have to say anything and we can just hang up the phone and say bye bye (laughter)
Me: I just want to compliment your PR team. But I’m going to try to bring up some questions not covered in that text. When you guys release an album to the public – this one is coming up in June – the album has already been finalized maybe for one year or so. But when has the story of the album started? And when did you finish with its recording and production?
KH: That’s some time ago actually, but please don’t ask me about dates. I’m not really good at that. It’s been a while, let’s put it like that. It’s been long enough for me to like the album. It’s not so uncommon that after it’s done, and you have been involved for so long, you cannot f’kin stand it. I couldn’t hear it anymore for a while. It took me a while to get kinda neutralized again, to be able to listen to it without analyzing everything on it. So it’s been a while.
Me: I heard that it happens to many musicians to have this love/hate relation with their releases. What’s your favorite moment on the album? The one that makes you most proud?
KH: The favorite moment that brings most pride for me is of course, Skyfall. That’s definitely because it is my song and I just love it. I think it turned out really well, I like all of its twists and turns, so I’m not really neutral on that. So yeah, I like my song.
Me: It’s not a bad song, so I understand why you like it. Sometimes it’s difficult to arrange songs for the usual four piece band, with one composer. You guys have released an album with seven members and it feels like each song has a different composer. How did that even work?
KH: This is a good question. It’s some kind of miracle. It takes a lot of time and controversies, different opinions, sorting out our differences. Luckily, we have a great production team to be the judges, or better yet, the neutral judgemental part of all that. It also helps that all the musicians are open to changes and alterations. It’s common and easy to have a songwriter writing a song and sticking to ‘that’s the song, that’s how it’s supposed to be’. But I think a band with the right chemistry can thrive from the conglomeration of different spirits and ideas.
In some cases it can be that too many cooks spoil the porridge. But in our case it can be very fruitful. You just have to sort it out in a good way, to be open and ready to accept criticism, to go back inside your head and make changes to the idea even if they might not initially look as good, but they just contribute to the whole. I think therefore we are on the right track with this band. It is, of course, the first time we put an album together with this constellation. This was the first shot and it went very very well. For the future, things will get even easier. We know more about each other, we have more trust and respect for each other. But in the end, it’s always very tricky, especially with 7 people together. And, on top of it all, 7 people where everybody is an alpha. We have very experienced long time musicians that have tasted success and everyone has a good clue about what the f’k he’s doing. Nobody goes around asking ‘tell me what I am supposed to do and I’ll do it’. Maybe the drummer is the exception (laughter and apologise sent to Daniel for the joke).
It’s tough, but we managed it and it became a well worked miracle.
Me: Indeed, the result speaks for itself. It does feel like a nice piece of art after the first few listens. One of the things that’s written in the PR text is that one of the main component of the album is the fact that everything is based on friendship and everyone worked with enthusiasm. Considering that you guys have been apart for a while now, was it easy to find this friendship again, as a band?
KH: It’s never easy to find friendship in a band. It’s not easy to explain. You don’t even have to be friends to be in a band and make something cool every now and then. What’s for sure though is that you cannot be in a band and hate each other. Friends to me mean that you enjoy hanging out and you thrive on that. With fello band members, when you’re on tour, you end up spending so much time together so you actually end up with the need to go apart and spend time away from them. The break from each other is very welcome. And I guess this is the case especially with the bands that have been together for so many years. But what remains is a friendship that can maybe be compared to an old marriage. It’s not glowing love anymore, but you wouldn’t wanna live without each other and you look forward to being together.
Me: When I saw you live at one of the Pumpkin United tour, I really liked the vibe on stage. You guys have pretty much what you’re describing. You enjoy each other’s company, it wasn’t a competition on stage. It was a collaboration
KH: That’s very much what we have. Everybody works for the team. Of course, everybody is presenting himself in some way, but that’s not what it is about. Everyone is respecting each other and we know we are the best when we are one. We also didn’t have to force that. It just comes naturally. And I believe that everyone who has watched us live or has seen our live DVDs can agree that this is not faked at all. We do enjoy what we are doing and we enjoy doing it togteher.
Me: Exactly, it’s not Kai Hansen and background band. That’s when it might get boring.
KH: Certainly not. It’s the same for me, I like to see bands. Not one big frontman having lots of clowns beside him or hired performers. I think most people love bands. And in the end, there are certain characters in the band and the band lives on those, but there’s this unity that a band delivers.
Me: I read that most of the equipment that you have used for this album is old-fashioned. You have used the first drum kit if I am not mistaken?
KH: It was not the first drum kit that Helloween used, but it was the original drum kit of Ingo Schwichtenberg that has been used on Keeper 2. You can call it Ingo’s second signature drumkit. It was very special. Beyond that, there was a lot of analogue processing, compressors, you name it, you got it. I think we made a mix of the best of the digital and the analogue world. And we are happy we could afford it. Ingo’s drum kit was very special because he was a big part of Helloween since the band started. In this way, his spirit was with us at all times.
Me: How challenging is it to use such old equipment in the studios nowadays? Are the studios accommodating or it required a big effort?
KH: If the equipment you are using is well maintained and in a good shape, it is not a problem. A good studio is able to include analogue stuff into the digital world. They take care of the logistics and you just have to have somebody who knows how to handle these details and how to work with it. And luckily we had and we were all fine to proceeding this way
Me: Are you guys writing the songs in the idea that you’ll end up performing them live and are you ever thinking of maybe having less crazy and wild parts in your songs..
KH: I know what you mean. Let’s put it that way. If you write a song, you just do it. I speak for myself here: if the song idea cannot live on being pumped up with choirs and keyboards and whatever shit you need, it’s not a really good song. A good song for me is if you play basic, you just sit there with the guitar and sing along to it, it has to have some magic. If that magic is not there and you have to create that magic with gimmicks, then you don’t have a good song. What we actually did was that everyone made our demos, we had the preproduction stuff and then we got together as a band in the rehearsal room and that’s where you’re stripped down to basics. No choirs, nothing extravagant. Just guitar, bass, drums and vocals. Doing it that way, you know that you’re on a good track. And if you take this and record it, and only afterward you add whatever you want to add, that’s when you know that when you’ll perform live you’ll be able to strip it down as much as you want and it will still work out.
Me: Interesting. Never thought of that
Me: You personally haven’t been releasing much stuff lately. It’s like 5-6 years when you also worked with Avantasia. So how was it to go back into a recording studio now? Did you miss it?
KH: Yes, absolutely. The last Gamma Ray album was a long while ago and besides that just small bits here and there, but nothing big. I think that the longer you are doing this, the longer you might take as a band or as a performer to come up with something new. Which is ok in my opinion. You have already done a lot. You cannot shit out songs. In the beginning, of course, you’re full of ideas, but after that there’s always the danger that you end up in this kind of painting by numbers repetition. I personally do not like this. I need the challenge to come up with something that is me, but is kinda new for me. That takes time, and it takes more and more time after all those years.
Me: Interesting. And I see what you mean. I had actually written it down as a question and you just answered like half of it. This album sounds like Helloween. But it’s new. What is it that makes it sound like Helloween, you think? How would you explain this to someone who just starts listening to powermetal?
KH: It’s very hard to explain that. I even tried to analyze this myself, especially in that phase after the production when I said I can no longer hear the album. You have to realize that Helloween is a band with a long long history. And along the history, there’s various lineups, various eras of musical content, various songs and styles, so I think the variety and versatility of styles and things that are included in Helloween is pretty wide. Even now, we have so many song writers in the band and on this album so things sound very different. The art of making an album with all these various past styles and influences is not to make an album where you have the feeling it’s a compilation of different bands. It should sound like the band. For me, a very good example when it comes to that, has always been Queen. Queen has done such a variety of styles on their albums, from jazz to close to punk, yet they were always Queen. And this is a result of having whatever you are doing, do it from the heart. And do it right. If it doesn’t sound authentic, just don’t f’kin bother. It will sound like someone who tries and cannot. Beyond that, everything is allowed as long as it is coming from your heart and it sounds like it’s coming from your heart.
In Helloween everyone in the band is open. That’s what makes the band. When we play something together, it will sound just like something Helloween is playing. It starts with the way the drums are played, the way the bass and the guitars are played. The whole performance is what makes the song, a band song.
Me: That was very inspiring to hear. I like that answer, thank you!
Me: One last question. How demanding is it to reschedule a tour like Pumpkins United? There’s quite some logistics involved
KH: It’s a f’kin nightmare actually. We have done the album, during the production the corona shit was developing and nobody could even imagine the implications that we’d end up living with. We had no idea how to deal with it and had to work our way with the circumstances. If you can’t tour, you just cannot as it is forbidden, so you have to postpone. But you can’t postpone again and again. So you start doubting that there’s any sense in the whole shit, you start mistrusting everything and getting pissed off. Every patience has its end sometimes. Luckily, we are not completely there yet and now we are thriving on the thought of being able to go on tour next year without any f’kin necessity of being injected with weird stuff. Sorry for the political turn. But like the song ‘Rockin in a free world’, that’s what we’re hoping to do next year. We have the tour booked once more and we hope it’s gonna go down well.
Me: Fingers crossed. You are actually starting in Oslo so I’m looking forward to seeing the first show.
KH: Oh God, no, don’t watch the first show. It’s always awful.
Me: I know, that’s why I am looking forward to it.
KH: (laughter) It’s actually not the first show. That one usually goes very well because everyone is super focused form the rehearsal. Normally it is the second show that sucks as everyone relaxes too much. But let’s see, we look forward to playing live again when it will be possible.