Interview For Detritus Magazine (04/15/99)
I'm like a broken record when I say this, but Helloween is one of my favorite bands. I was lucky enough to speak to founding member / ex-guitarist Kai Hansen a few weeks ago, and then Tony Webster, master of the official Helloween website, asked me if I'd like to interview Hansen's replacement, Roland Grapow. Hmm... Yeah. It's not like Bruce Kulick's situation in Kiss, where ten years after joining the band he was still called "the new guy", but I get the impression not too many people know a lot about Mr. Grapow. So I jumped at the chance to speak to him. Thanks to Tony for making it all happen.
Roland joined Helloween around Christmas of 1988, and one of the first things he did was tour the US with the band on the second Headbanger's Ball tour in '89 (also featuring Anthrax and Exodus). He came from the band Rampage where he was the lead singer and guitarist, and of the two guys to replace him there, guitarist Henjo Richter is now in Kai Hansen's band Gamma Ray. Germany is a small world, eh? Grapow said Rampage was from a three-part vocal harmony background, inspired by late 70's hard rock bands like Journey, Styx, and Foreigner; but then they got into Saxon, Judas Priest, and other early 80's metal bands, and sported a twin-guitar attack. They tried to be "A mixture of Judas Priest and Journey... It was a little bit stupid". They released two albums but Grapow wasn't very proud of them.
He got more into heavy metal around the time he joined Helloween, and his first works with them were the much-maligned "Pink Bubbles Go Ape" (1991) and "Chameleon" (1993). Yes, the multi-faceted "Chameleon" certainly was a departure for the band, but I feel "Pink Bubbles" was never given a fair shake. Grapow agreed, saying it "Isn't so bad at all. It's still a hard rock Helloween sound. But compared maybe to 1988's 'Keeper Of The Seven Keys Part 2' it's not as good or strong.". But what about that next one? "The problem with the 'Chameleon' situation was, I was pretty new in the band and I still didn't know which way I should approach the whole band. I was the new guy, why should I push anything? I'm the replacement of a guy. I tried to write some heavy metal tunes, which I did on 'Pink Bubbles'. I think I did a good job. But the other band members, the songwriters, they changed. And I don't know why. They did a brilliant record like 'Keeper 2' and then one of the songwriters is gone and they tried to do totally different kind of music. 'Pink Bubbles' isn't so bad, and 'Chameleon' is a total different world. I always describe it as the three Helloween songwriters' solo record or something.". Ironically, "Now after so many years a lot of old fans come back and now they like it. 'Oh, it's the best Helloween record you ever did!' Now I don't believe anything.", he said with a laugh. "Now I do my 'Chameleon' on my solo records.".
His solo albums, "The Four Seasons Of Life" (1997) and "Kaleidoscope" (1999), have titles that suggest diversity, but they just aren't as eclectic as "Chameleon". Instead, they have more of a neo-classical vibe than the regular Helloween stuff. The first one featured Grapow on vocals and a backing band of Rough Silk keyboardist Ferdy Doernberg and Helloween rhythm section Markus Grosskopf (bass) and Uli Kusch (drums). "Most people said they liked the music and the songs, but the vocals, they said weren't really good. It took a long time but I realized they were right.", Grapow humbly admitted. He was under pressure from his japanese record label to complete the album, and it was the first time he sang lead since the Rampage days. "I've been rehearsing my guitar now forever, a lot of decades.", he laughs. "My singing, you know, a couple years I didn't do anything and I said to myself 'Now I'm singing! I'm a great singer!', But it wasn't happening. I'm a good singer in normal 70's music.". Case in point: He sang a Helloween b-side, a cover of Grand Funk's "Closer To Home". When Helloween singer Andi Deris, not a Grand Funk fan, heard Grapow's vocals he told him to sing them again, but harder. His wife heard the redone vocals and said, "Hey, that's not sounding like [Grand Funk's] Mark Farner!".
Doernberg is back on "Kaleidoscope", but the rest of the guys are new: Mike Vescera (vocals), Barry Sparks (bass), Mike Terrana (drums), and guest spots from keysman Jens Johansson. Any self-respecting Yngwie Malmsteen fan will quickly recognize all those guys as being ex-Yngwie mates. Grapow played some neo-classical stuff on "Four Seasons", and he also did a Helloween b-side / instrumental "homage" to Yngwie called "Grapowski's Malmsuite 1001 (In D-Doll)". What gives? He knows Yngwie, has hung out with him and Uli Roth, and even stayed at his house, and though he used to be a Malmsteen fan, he's not so much anymore. "My idol in the early 80's was Steve Lukather, but when I joined Helloween I wanted to be more metal. When I heard Yngwie's first record in the mid-80's, I didn't get it. I said, 'This can't be possible. This guy must be fake, maybe recording everything in half speed.'.", he said with a chuckle. He likes Yngwie's "Odyssey" (1988), as well as the more song-oriented stuff instead of the shredding. "I did a lot of Yngwie wack-out shit on 'Four Seasons'. Then after that I stopped. I said, 'That's enough Yngwie, now Roland Grapow can be in front.'. There's still an influence, though.". He laughs, "Now it sounds stupid because I have his ex-members. But they're not responsible for Yngwie's sound. He's always sounding the same even if he's got ten different singers. It's always his songwriting.".
"After 'The Four Seasons Of Life' I was a little burned out because of the reviews. I said, 'Fuck, I'm not sure what I should write now for Helloween.' I didn't change the world with that record. Nobody cared so much, only the fans. It's hard the first time; now I don't care so much anymore. The first time I was like, 'Another bad review... I can't read anymore. My goodness...'.". During the writing sessions for Helloween's "Better Than Raw" (1998) he worked with Kusch and Grosskopf on their material more than on his own; in fact he has no songwriting credits on that album, and only one on the previous album, "The Time Of The Oath" (1996). He wrote "Hidden Answer" for "Raw", but it was passed over and ended up on "Kaleidoscope"; he also had "Angel Face" lying around for 22 years before it finally made "Kaleidoscope". Other than that, all his new material was written on Helloween's "Raw" tour. He just needed some new players...
A friend gave him Vescera's and Sparks' phone numbers, he called them, and everyone agreed to work together. "I like to do records besides Helloween.", Grapow explained of solo album number two. "I have maybe two or three songs on those records and last time I didn't have any.". He enjoyed working (and co-writing: three "Kaleidoscope" songs were penned with Vescera) with this new bunch quite a bit. Ex-Running Wild bassist Jens Becker replaced Sparks on the touring the band's doing this year, which already hit Europe and South America and will hit France next month, but he'd like to keep the album line-up together as a side band if possible. That might be tough given Sparks' full schedule and the fact that Terrana has officially joined Rage, but one never knows. In any case, he wants them all to contribute if they do make another album together. Maybe that one will get a worldwide release - for now North American fans have to import "Four Seasons" and "Kaleidoscope". That might change as Grapow has sent tapes to a few US record labels and is currently awaiting replies, but he's doing everything himself because his management is unsure if pursuing deals outside Europe and Japan will be lucrative enough.
In closing I asked him how he met up with photographer Wolf Hoffmann, the ex-Accept guitarist, for some of the shots inside "Kaleidoscope" liner notes. The album was mixed in Nashville, TN, by Michael Wagener, and Wagener and Hoffmann are old friends. They ended up using the studio on Hoffmann's farm so it was only a matter of time before the two guitarists met. Grapow said, "He's a very shy guy, like I was when I joined Helloween. It took a couple days to get warmed up.". He knew Hoffmann had taken pictures on some Accept albums, and his management said photos were needed, so he asked Wolf and got a "yes" answer. "It was a nice idea to have Accept's guitar player taking my picture.", he laughed. Roland joked he wanted some inexpensive shots "outside with the horses", but Hoffmann nixed that idea in favor of booking a real studio. Unfortunately, Grapow suffered an allergic reaction the day of the shoot, but half the photos turned out. All's well that ends well.
Roland Grapow had to be the most soft-spoken, humblest pro musician I've ever talked to. I have to admit I was a little surprised, but pleasantly so. You have to figure a globetrotting heavy metal guitar player might be a little jaded here in late 1999, but not Grapow. He genuinely seemed like a nice guy deserving of success, so do yourself a favor and give his material a spin if you get the chance.