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Interview: GAMMA RAY

Rock Stars...  

Gamma Ray

When you realise that you have been assigned to interview a musician whose contribution to Heavy Metal is simply impossible to describe in plain words, and the given time to complete this difficult 'mission' is more or less ten minutes, it is almost certain that you will find yourself in a complete state of panic and confusion.

With all the courage and strength that I managed to find in me, I approached the disarmingly friendly and constantly smiling Kai Hansen, leader of the German Power/Heavy Metal outfit Gamma Ray, with whom I spoke about the latest effort of his band, namely "Land Of The Free II", his current relationship with the members of Helloween and asked him to confirm whether returning back to the ranks of the legendary Hamburg-based outfit sometime in the future is indeed a possibility.

Kai, let me start this interview by saying what a great pleasure it is to have Gamma Ray performing here in London. Tonight's show here at the Shepherd's Bush Empire is officially sold out - why do you think that is the case, in a country where Teutonic Power Metal has been traditionally relatively unpopular?

Kai: I believe that the fact that tonight's show is sold out is indeed a really good sign. We already had two sold out shows in Paris, but England was a kind of territory that the kind of metal that we play had been 'dead' for years, but it seems that it's back now as more young kinds seem to have discovered our stuff and start to like it. For me this is proof that this kind of music is timeless.

Kai, much as I liked your band's latest effort "Land Of The Free II", I feel obliged to disagree with the accompanying press release which describes it as an effort that's removed from the classic 80's sound. When I listen to these twelve songs I think of bands like Accept, Judas Priest and Iron Maiden.

Kai: Well, we in the band never thought that this is an album which is removed from the 80s sound. I don't know - maybe someone from the label got something wrong there, seeing as this is definitely an album with a typical 80s spirit. This is the atmosphere that we wanted to achieve and there is no doubt about it.

Every time I listen to a new Heavy Metal album, I always tend to mark down those songs with a more 'classic' approach to metal and even though most of your new songs were included in my list, what we have here is a varied effort with many interesting and varied elements to it. There are moments where I hear a certain influence from Billy Idol, especially as far as vocals are concerned (note: Kai looks slightly surprised) or those where a few Goth and Russian folk elements are presented. You must have guessed that the song that I'm referring to is "Empress" - can you please explain the idea behind this specific composition?

Kai: It's funny because the song was written by Danny Zimmermann, our drummer, and the way he prefers to compose songs is on his computer with a keyboard as an accompanying instrument. You see, Danny does not play the guitar, so he does everything on the keyboard. So, at some point he came with the rough sketch of the show, a demo, and when he played his ideas to us, the result sounded more like Rammstein.

What we did then was to sit down with him and re-record the guitar parts and offer ideas to him as to how the song should sound. So, we worked together on the songs and at the end, when the final result was the one you now get to hear on the record, we were left with only the vocals to figure out. Then, he came up with the rough sketch of the lyrics, but still with no idea regarding the chorus.

What I tend to like is getting some lyric ideas from the others and then trying to figure out what the appropriate refrain would be, so the moment I picked up the microphone, the words just came out without any real effort on my part. When it comes to solos, we do everything during the rehearsals in the studio, seeing as Danny does not do any solos and that's when I came up with that Russian-sounding theme right in the middle.

Mainly, though, this composition has a certain Acceptic approach to music. We decided to push this song towards that direction, knowing that this would resemble the music of that band. That fits really well with our style and I believe that this is the reason why this song sounds that good.

That is exactly the first impression I got the first time I listened to it, but it was my partner who grew up in Moscow that managed to identify the Russian influences on it. How easy is it to combine such diverse influences in your music?

Kai: Well, we always collect all kind of different influences that we have and transform them into our own 'musical language', so to say, and that is the reason behind the outcome of songs like that.

Gamma Ray

Ok, as the main composer of the band, what would you say is the connection between this effort and the now classic "Land Of The Free" album? Is the origin of this connection musical, lyrical or both?

Kai: I believe that both albums share this 'positive power' attitude that we have as a band - this 'go for it' factor that you can find in our music. We want people to feel cheerful while listening to our album, not depressed or something, and to be able to sing along to the various melodies that we enhance in our music. There is a certain amount of naivety that we include in our music while composing our albums and all these are responsible for the connection that you can find between our last effort and "Land Of The Free". Lyrically speaking, the songs are based on the concept of freedom as seen by various different perspectives.

Apart from the concept of freedom, you also seem to be quite concerned about the current state and general treatment of this planet by us humans, as that concept is expressed in the lyrics of "To Mother Earth".

Kai: Yes, this is really a sad situation and the lyrics do speak for themselves.

Kai, how easy is it to write an eleven minute composition, such as "Insurrection", nowadays and still manage to make it sound so damn interesting at the same time?

Kai: (laughs) That is the challenge while doing this, you know? When I started composing this song, I really didn't know where I was heading with it - the only thing I had as an idea was the opening acoustic guitar part and a few vocals. Still, I decided to begin working on these ideas and I gradually moved from one part of the song to the other without stopping, seeing as I have an instant feeling whether a song really needs to be short or long in duration.

In this case, I just felt that the music should go on, so I added one part after the other and then I came to this point where I felt that I should start considering how the ending part should sound. With that in mind, it would be wrong to say that I intended to compose an eleven and a half minute song - this simply happened because…well, it just had to be like that.

A man with an extensive career such as yours and a great number of albums in hand must find it really difficult to create a balanced set list for Gamma Ray's live performances. How easy is it to ensure that you satisfy both your young fans and people who have been following the band's career since the days of…let's say the "Insanity and Genius" album or even the "Sign No More" album which is my personal favourite?

Kai: The choice of finding out which are the songs that we need to play is always a hard one. We like playing new stuff as much as we like to play songs that we do not often perform in a live environment. Playing such songs makes things more interesting for us, but we are also aware of the fact that the people that come to our shows want to have a party and sing along to our shows and neither you or I can deny that there are some songs that are more famous and loved than others, and these are the songs that we need to ensure that are always part of our set list.

In the end, it doesn't really matter which songs we will play, because there will always be someone who will complain of us not playing his/her favourite song (laughs). Having said that, most of the people tend to be happy with the songs that we normally choose to play and we always try to make the right choice for them.

On this tour, we put more attention to our set list so as not to make things boring for those people who decide to attend more than one of our shows. We tend to make a few changes on our set list every day, so as to break the daily routine and also make things interesting for ourselves.

Photo: Peter Marley

In this tour, namely "Hellish Rock 07/08", you are opening for Helloween. It must feel quite weird to go on stage every night, knowing that the band that is headlining will be performing some of the songs that you yourself wrote more than twenty years ago. How do you manage to switch from one mind frame to another?

Kai: Well, it's fun, you know? I see this whole tour as some sort of family trip, you know? I don't believe that the guys from Helloween and I can reach the stage of being able to play all the common songs together on stage every single day, though.

There has to be a specific billing on this tour and the name Helloween is still the bigger name and with that in mind it is pretty clear why Gamma Ray has to be the first band to go on stage every night.

I honestly have no problems with that - we simply do our own thing, we enjoy performing our music and I also enjoy seeing the boys (note: Kai means Helloween) perform their set. OK, sometimes when they reach that point of their set when they play my songs I thing that I should be on stage for some reason - on the other hand, though, Helloween nowadays is a completely different band than the one that I was part of and again, I have absolutely no problem with that.

Any chance of seeing you becoming again a member of Helloween in the near future? There are quite a few people, including me, who would be really happy to witness such a union, you know!

Kai: Oh well - I really don't want to make any speculations about this issue, you know? At the moment we are all happy with the way things are and as far as the future is concerned…we will see what the future brings!

Well, I really do wish you every success with whatever you wish to get involved with in the future Kai (note: a few seconds ago, the tour manager knocked on the dressing room door, thus indicating that I should conclude our interview). I hope that you will enjoy tonight's show!

Kai: Thank you very much - enjoy the show!

Interview © 2008 John Stefanis. All rights reserved.

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