Interview For Metal-Is Records Site (11/03/00)
By Matthias Mineur
The waiting is over. At last, to the joy of their fans, Helloween are ready to present their latest album, "The Dark Ride" to the world, and show themselves in a more modern, future-oriented light than ever before. Whether the fans of the pumpkin boys accept this step will take a couple of weeks to judge. But the fact is that Helloween haven't put out such a confident album for years. And, in addition, the production on "The Dark Ride" simply oozes professionalism, courtesy of Roy Z (Rob Halford, Bruce Dickinson) and Charlie Bauerfeind (Blind Guardian, Saxon, Gamma Ray).
At the moment, the most important question seems to be: what do the fans think of it? Have they finally got over the shock of 1994's "Chameleon"? Will they accept these corrective measures to the Helloween style? Metal-Is' Matthias Mineur decided to emulate Schulz's Linus and went straight to the Great Pumpkin, guitarist Roland Grapow, to find out...
Roland, your new album, "The Dark Ride", is being released this week, but a number of journalists have already heard it. What are their opinions? Has the press accepted the change to a more open, modern, even darker sound?
Well, of course, there have been a couple who think we've gone too far. Especially on the Internet, we've read criticism that "The Dark Ride" isn't smooth enough, that it's too heavy and sounds too dark. But, to our surprise, the japaneses love the album. I was a bit worried about what their reaction would be, because the japanese market has totally changed over the past few years. But [japanese magazine] "Burrn!" has made it their album of the month, with Andi on the front cover, and "Young Guitars" has also published a multi-page story about us and the new album. This was really surprising, because the trend in Japan has turned more towards the US style: Marilyn Manson and all that stuff is the "in" thing at the moment.
Have the fans and the media already selected their favourite tracks? Are there specific songs which come in for repeated praise?
Yes, there are three or four tracks which a lot of people seem to love. The title track, of course, then "Mr. Torture" and "Sun Is Going Down". Opinions on my "Escalation 666" differ. Some people say it's too dark, too heavy, too different, from the typical Helloween style.
Does criticism like this hurt you? Did you ever think that perhaps you had, indeed, gone a step too far?
No, I'm as proud of the album as I always was. When you finish an album, you always wonder whether you could have done this or that better, or whether you shouldn't have left out two softies to make room for two faster songs. But you don't have the time to change everything again. The fans should be able to listen to and enjoy the songs for a couple of years at least, so you've got to think in multi-shift mode. And anyway, I think that "The Dark Ride" actually turned out to be a true-blooded Helloween album; one that is both typical and yet totally new and which, with all its influences, will be a positive surprise for the fans.
And one which will get you huge respect from the music world!
Yes, definitely and, to be honest, we weren't really thinking about that at the beginning when we started work on the album, never mind hoping for it, at least not in these dimensions. The production began with the same steps as always, as with our previous albums. We'd put the songs together and worked on them. We started off with 25, then cut the list down to about 20. That step had been taken. So when Roy Z came into our practice room, we weren't even sure whether we even needed him for the pre-production. But Roy took every single song and worked on all the details of them with us. The arrangements were made with amazing precision and in great detail. Roy even wanted us to practice the songs before we went into the studio, but we've not done that since "Chameleon".
It seems as though the choice of Roy Z and Charlie Bauerfeind was the right one!
Absolutely. It's the first time I've ever been truly happy with the producer team. You always have your own ideas of how a really good producer should work. The first producer I met after I joined Helloween was Chris Tsangarides, and it really wasn't much fun working with him. In those days, I thought that all producers were like that. Then Tommy Hansen came along, and he was great at first. But when we were doing "Master Of The Rings", I had the feeling that I was producing my own guitar parts. And that's the way it stayed. That has been my complaint all these years, and it's a fact that we've always moaned about the overall sound of the album. It sort of wasn't modern enough for the time. In the 80's, it wasn't so bad, but it was definitely "passť" for the 90's. "Time Of The Oath" was the biggest disappointment. We sat down and had a talk with Tommy, and the result was "Better Than Raw", which sounded better, but it still wasn't what I had imagined it should be.
But you can now rely 100% on Roy and Charlie?
Well, we were a bit wary at first, of course, you know, about putting our baby into the hands of a babysitter. Andi, Uli and I didn't want to leave anything to chance and we wanted to co-produce the album anyway. Every one of us wanted to keep chief control over the production in our own hands, but we had also decided to accept outside influences.
How did Roy and Charlie get on with each other? Were there any power struggles?
They weren't necessary, because Charlie's job was totally different to Roy's. Charlie was the engineer in the classic sense, Roy was the album producer. Everybody had the right to veto anything without hurting anyone's feelings. And besides, Roy never misused his position: he was always cooperative. Of course, there were a lot of discussions, but they were held on such a level that no one felt insulted. From the word go, Roy and Charlie were our first choices. The work turned out to be very concentrated and creative.
The near-ten-minutes long title track is especially good, and the somewhat epic arrangement forms a good link to your earlier classics. I think a song like that was sorely missed on the last album.
Yes, I can understand that. It was definitely time for us to write another song like that. But the road to that song was a long and hard one, and actually, the song happened by chance. We were all sitting together and one of us said "We need something to form a link to our previous stuff.". I had a song, it was about four and a half minutes long, and Roy suggested a few changes to it. He asked me: "Couldn't you add a longer mid-section and take this and that out of here and try it like that?". I was playing around with this song for weeks on Tenerife and the result is "The Dark Ride", a very long track and one which, for me, is a continuation of the "Keeper" story, but with a modern touch. It reminds me of songs like "Halloween", with lots of ups and downs.
Doesn't it also perhaps present you this time as the most important member of the band, whose influence and output are greater than ever before?
Well, on "Pink Bubbles Go Ape", a lot of the ideas were mine. But you're right, "The Dark Ride" is more my album than any of the others we've done before. But that's certainly a result of the production conditions. I only live 100 yards from the studio, so I was there all the time when anyone was needed. Roy and Charlie also appreciate the way I play, in contrast to Tommy Hansen who I felt either used to ignore me or not have any respect for me at all. Musicians need support and encouragement, and they like to hear a compliment and praise now and again. I got a lot of that from Roy and, of course, I felt doubly motivated as a result.
And of course that does not change any part of the important role that Michael Weikath plays, because without him, Helloween probably wouldn't sound like Helloween at all. An album like "The Dark Ride" really needs one of his typical speed-metal songs, doesn't it?
Absolutely. All the typical Helloween characteristics can be found in nearly half the songs. Weiki's two songs, "All Over The Nations" and "Salvation" are absolutely classical Helloween songs. Uli's "Mr. Torture", for example, also has staccato guitars and stuff like that, but it's played on a lower key. I personally feel the only really new-style songs to be the very loosely produced Andi Deris tracks, such as "Mirror, Mirror..." and "I Live For Your Pain". And the song I mentioned before, "Escalation 666", also has an unusually loose production. I really can't think of any band at the moment which sounds like that. It's the lowest-keyed song that we've ever done and yet its chorus is typical Helloween. Uli's second song, "Departed (Sun Is Going Down)" is almost a bit Faith No More like. It shows a lot of new influences, yet everything fits together. You never have the feeling that we've gone too far to the right, or too far to the left, as it were. I think it's a very well-rounded album.
Did you learn any new lessons as a musician and instrumentalist during the production?
As a guitarist, I feel I have found my way back to my original strength. Right from the start, Roy told me "less is more". I knew what he meant and tried to keep to that, seeing as I used to be much more of a melodic guitar player 20 years ago. That was when Weiki first saw and heard me, and it was the melodic playing that he liked so much. When I joined Helloween, I thought I had to sort of prove myself now I was playing in such an important band. But with "The Dark Ride", I've come home again. As a composer, I've learned how to design a song, how to keep an eye on the other instruments and to leave enough room for the special moods required. Some passages are stuffed full of overdubs, but we always kept our minds on what the particular song actually needed.
Are you afraid of a repetition of the "Chameleon" disaster? Were there any discussions within the band, before the production began, about how far you could actually go?
No, the band was never worried about that. You see, for me, "The Dark Ride" is quasi-"Keeper 3". In my opinion, it is the best Helloween album since 1987 and certainly the best since I have been in the band, and that's 12 years. And believe me, I wouldn't say that lightly. I am amazingly proud of the album, because we don't want to sound like we did in the 80's. We've all developed since then, that's the way life goes. But I would never ever compare "The Dark Ride" to "Chameleon". If I must make a comparison, then only as far as the creativity goes, which bubbled to the surface on both albums. With "Chameleon", we didn't set ourselves any limits for the arrangements, and that was the case this time too. If you're looking for similarities between the two albums, then the only one I can think of is the low key in which both are played.
Last question: you've only appeared as a support band during the last three years. Will we be seeing you headlining a tour next year?
That's correct, and that is also a problem. Some countries have never seen us as headliners, only as a support band, such as at the Iron Maiden shows, at which we were only on stage for a maximum of 45 minutes at a time. So at the moment, we're looking for a suitable band which will act as support for us this time. But the band has to be good enough to make our lives difficult! We'd like the fans to see two bands, both almost as good as each other. That would also help us to prove to ourselves that we've still go it in us. We've been getting letters from south american fans by the bagful for years, in which they beg us to go back as headliners and play our full set. But at the moment, it's still only in the planning stage.