Latest Release: My God-Given Right [Nuclear Blast]
German power metal kicked off globally in the early eighties, shortly after the New Wave of British Heavy Metal [NWOBHM] sprawled across the music world. The two sub genres, whilst similar in many ways, possessed slight variations in approach and delivery that some imitators were not able to replicate. The influence of the style evolved into numerous offshoots but many of the original pioneers of that distinctive melodic sound are still active today and are experiencing somewhat of resurgence in popularity, picking up new fans on top of the enduring and loyal fan base. One such band is the mighty Helloween from Hamburg, who are currently in the country for a round of tour dates. Following the release of their fifteenth studio album My God-Given Right, Loud Online chatted to long serving, founding member, guitarist Michael Weikath about their continuing legacy.
The latest album is a very strong release. How much work went into the arrangements?
Each of us in the band puts their demos together at home on their respective systems and then we put them on a server so everyone can download around thirty tracks. From that we pick the best stuff to be on an album as well as B-sides and bonus tracks. Andi Deris [lead vocals] was the one with most of the tracks on the record which strongly impacted on the overall nature of the album. I am glad and impressed and so really like the outcome.
How much impact did the producer Charlie Bauerfeind have on the Helloween sound on this album?
A lot because he was also part of the process in choosing the tracks. After the first tracks were selected, he said, ‘if no one minds, I’d like to take an 80’s approach to the production and sound’. We agreed because he got some gadgets from the 80’s such digital to analogue transformers and vice versa, compressors, limiters and equalisers. So that was analogue stuff that he put in the digital chain and you can sure hear it as they produce a particular sound which creates an aura or magic that you only get when you use analogue equipment and this was high class or expensive stuff. You get a record that is warmer, more open and harmonic with the kind of space that I think can only be achieved with real analogue equipment. That is the story to this album.
I’m guessing you were not recording to an old Studer tape machine though.
No, not that far but he had the actual things in between that recreates that sound. There is plug-ins that mimics the behaviour of tape machines so that was certainly added into the mix. He did what he could to achieve that and I think there is a real audible difference between this album and the previous album, Straight Out of Hell. We use Pro-Tools of course and Charlie has been one of the pioneers with that software. Ironically, early on, he has had to endure scorn from other producers saying, “Hey there, you with your little computer book, ha ha” and that is just the way it went.
A couple of tracks on the album that stand out as good examples of production and arrangements working well are ‘The Swing of a Fallen World’ and the last track on the album, ‘You Still of War’.
Charlie did optimisation where he could and the demos that we had were very close to the album tracks but of course, the album tracks as final results are far better. I’m less capable of creating great demo mixes but I now have my share of expensive plug-ins so things are sounding better. The other guys in the band have good ears and great equipment so what we hear on the demos tends to be quite close to what you might hear on the album later except that it has been fully optimised. Even the keyboard sections we created at home at recreated by a professional keyboard player, Matthias Ulmer from Anyone’s Daughter fame. He is also doing live keyboards for a few big German acts. He is amazing such that even if I have stuff that I think is quite good, I’ll still give it to him to make it better.
When you re-recorded a bunch of classic tracks for the Unarmed – Best of 25th Anniversary release several years ago, did you find that you corrected anything from the previous releases at all?
In a way but that was not the main objective. We wanted to take a break after the long touring so Andi and I wanted a creative break after fifteen years or more in order to come up with something new for the album that came afterwards [7 Sinners] and relax to have some leisure time. So that is what we did to become less involved in the production of an album that we do in a regular way which meant we only had to come to the studio and record a few tracks. When we came to that tour, so much other stuff was done by professional arrangers and composers that helped with the overall sound of Unarmed because we didn’t think that we could given we were too close to the subject or content as heavy metal musicians, if you like. Even if you have knowledge on how to play and record a harp, if you’ve been in a metal band for so long, you lose track or bearings on that so we gave it to professional people who came up with the arrangements and brought that across.
So did doing an album like Metal Jukebox also give you a bit of creative space at the time?
That was a different approach and I got beaten from behind and got my ass roughed up because of what the Sanctuary label were expecting. Rod Smallwood [Iron Maiden manager and Sanctuary label owner] was so pissed off with me because I had been doing classic rock guitar sounds on there but what they actually wanted was a more modern sound. They wanted to hear Korn or Rammstein sounds more in the way of what was done on ‘Locomotive Breath’. I thought that this was the big occasion to set a statement with the big classic rock style because that is what I can do and that was 80-90 percent of guitars on that record. I had to have it my way. Rod was so pissed off at the conference table in the office saying, “You know, when I heard this recording and thought ‘What the fuck is this all about?’, fuck off, bunch of bollocks”, and I was like, “Ah, I’m having some fish and chips here, care for a chip?”. Yeah, he was really pissed off even though we are good friends because I clearly disappointed him with the guitar recordings. But that is the way that I wanted to have it and I still deem it as better, even today.
It is pretty amusing if listeners might hear Iron Maiden influences in the Helloween sound.
I wouldn’t call it that because Maiden did their first album when we were growing up being hungry for our own record contract. So it was really a parallel development. When I first heard them I thought it was not so bad but I knew people who played better guitar than they did and that may sound arrogant but they were not that much of an influence, really. I was kind of like, “Fuck me, now I have got to be careful not to go the same way” because that is what I wanted to do path-wise and then they showed up. I was not what I needed at the time, you know, as we had no record contract which took another three or four years to get one. So there we were with all of the Maiden and Metallica comparisons. Sure, Kai Hansen [ex vocals and guitar] and Ingo Schwichtenberg [ex drums] were huge Metallica fans but I was a huge Metallica ignorer and hater. I thought with the first album Kill ‘em All that the singer was too weak and they needed a singer with more beef. Sorry if this comes across as arrogant and high nosed but that is just the way it was as we were committed to what we were doing even though Helloween didn’t exist at the time that Maiden came out. There was a community of musicians in Hamburg and that included Kai Hansen and myself working together being faced with the English sound [NWOBHM] happening. You cannot betray your roots but just let me say that it is not Maiden influences. We had been fans of Wishbone Ash, Thin Lizzy and Scorpions stuff. We sure didn’t need Maiden to teach us about twin harmony guitars.
I understand. So that was probably a similar experience for Scorpions and Accept?
Oh yeah, definitely and there was a band like Satan who briefly changed their name to Blind Fury. There were parallel developments. I would say that the Satan guys were capable of playing some serious guitar so that is always a tricky subject.
Keeper of the Seven Keys was a classic release and has been wrapped up as a trilogy.
Yeah, we had freedom suddenly. We had an amazing singer and we wanted to get into groundwork. Keeper happened because I had listened to a Nectar recital so that gave me a kick. So I went to Hansen and explained what I wanted to do with a long track and he wanted to do that too. So we had two long tracks which didn’t hurt because we were seen as ‘Rock Bottom’ by UFO and ‘Stranglehold’ by Ted Nugent but we always admired long tracks if they were interesting and done well. We then needed other strong tracks to fill out the album so that is how things came about. We had that new singer [Michael Kiske] which gave us freedom to do wide riffs because he doesn’t have to sing whilst playing guitar so we could structure everything. That was a pioneering or new start for us within the band having done so much beforehand. Previously we had to consider our riffs fitting in with the singing but we didn’t have to care about that anymore, we were free to do whatever we wanted. The singer could then be squealing something about it and that was an amazing new freedom.
Any plans for the thirtieth anniversary trilogy box set release on vinyl?
No, not really, we have no festivities planned because they take away the energy that you would need for regular albums. Each time you do anniversaries it tends to eat off the intensity that you need to release a new album and tour with it. Apart from that we are going to do festivals including Loud Park in Japan and we will be coming to Australia right after because it is just ten hours on the plane to get there from Japan.
When you did finally tour Australia with the line-up that included Sascha Gerstner, how long did it take to get in sync with his guitar style?
I don’t know but also you have to pick someone that suits both sides. It doesn’t come easily because you cannot just pick anyone because there are too many different styles so you need to have that common timbre and vibrato playing. It has to be equal otherwise it won’t work. One guitarist with a nervous tremolo would never go well with one with a slow one, you know. So we were lucky that we found each other and have been working together for about eleven years.
Back in 80’s, Guitar for the Practicing Musician magazine [April 1988] did a European power metal feature. How did you feel about the comparison to the hair metal of say Dokken and Racer X at the time?
Actually we couldn’t have a straight thought about things then because there was so much going on and suddenly we were in the middle of everything with a few follow spots directed at us. Then there was a lot to do with photos and autographs here, videos there and so on. That was kind of insane but good. You wouldn’t know where you were once you woke up from having a sleep. It was all a bit much but you would just close your eyes and go straight through it. It was fun as long as it lasted.
How would you say your style has changed over the years?
I don’t know, I just try to stay away from too many tricky playing; I want it to be more smooth and linear than say the Blackmore style. I would rather play a straight line on the guitar than try to prove to people that I can play in a British way if you know what I mean, or try to show people things I can do. I have grown up and become weary of some of the tacky things that I used to do in the past to show off. I try to get more relaxed because I am slightly pissed off with a few nervous things that I have recorded from a situation where I was excited and stuff. I also went along for some time where I didn’t feel at ease with myself very much because of a little drug induced incident that happened when someone gave me something to smoke which was really bad because it contained DDT and that kind of wrecked my coolness for some time so it was difficult to maintain for a bit so I am pretty glad that I got around that.