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Interview: MICHAEL WEIKATH (Helloween)

Rock Stars...

There were a few people that I spoke to in the past who claimed that Michael Weikath, guitarist and founding member of the legendary German Power/Heavy Metal outfit Helloween, can be a very moody person when interviewed, yet the person I ended up speaking with for more than twenty minutes was one of the most pleasant and wittiest musicians that I've ever met.

After a few interruptions that were related to a late sound check by the opening band Axxis, Michael found a relatively quiet spot in the foyer of the Shepherds Bush Empire, where we spoke about Helloween's latest effort "Gambling With The Devil", the current situation within the ranks of the band and the special relationship that is formed between the Hamburg-based quintet and their loyal fans.

Hi there Michael - thank you very much for taking the time to do this interview with "Pure Metal".

Michael: Well, there wasn't much that I could have possibly done to avoid that (laughs).

I want to start this interview by mentioning how much I enjoyed listening to your band's latest effort "Dancing With The Devil" and also by asking how difficult you found the process of bringing to life an album as varied as this, having previously created a concept album, namely "Keeper Of The Seven Keys - The Legacy".

Michael: Actually the fact that we worked on yet another concept prior to "Dancing With The Devil" end up being an advantage. We didn't feel that we had to carry the same 'burden' as we did when recording our previous album - there were no boundaries that we had do be aware of, just making sure that we sounded as Helloween should in the year 2007.

That was far easier than when recording a concept album, seeing as the only thing that we had to make sure was that the album title was to be "Gambling With The Devil". Things just happened with this album - there wasn't really much time for thinking or coming with any alternative ideas.

The tracks we chose, we chose even though there were a few tracks by Markus (Grosskopf/bass) and Andi (Deris/Vocals) that were not included in the album. As far as the guitars are concerned, there were at least five additional tracks that we were working on and these were finally included in the album. After that was over, we were only concerned about the running order of the songs and that was that.

Were there any ideas left from your previous album that were included in "Dancing With The Devil" or did you start working from scratch with only fresh new ideas?

Michael: Yes, we more or less do that, seeing as there are always a vast amount of ideas left over when we record an album, but also lots of other good stuff ended up being released either as bonus or B-side tracks to our singles. If you want to call Markus the 'King of the B-sides" you can, seeing as he indeed is.

There were a few ideas also left from these recording sessions, but it is questionable whether they will be included on any future Helloween releases, because the fact that they failed to make it on this album probably means that they will never become good enough to be included in any Helloween record. They only thing we could do is restructure a few of them, but we normally like coming out with fresh ideas for our albums, rather than working on already established ones.

One of the things I love about this new album is its variety. Not only do you present us with a few classic Helloween tunes but also with some of the heaviest material that this band has recorded since the "Better Than Raw" album. Do you find that your music nowadays manages to be appealing to a much wider audience than in the past?

Michael: Well, everything that we do and the reaction we get for doing things the way we do comes naturally, simply for being the five guys that we are, or maybe the four composers that we are, and when Sascha (Gerstner/guitars) decides to do stuff, he does things his own way.

I also tend to do things my own way and Andi normally tries to do things in a way as modern as possible, seeing as he is our frontman and he likes the idea of being able to impress with his skills both our old and our new fans.

As for Markus, he is the one responsible for some of the most classic Helloween material, which is great for me, because I don't particularly have to worry about being the only one in the band who is trying to bring the band's classic spirit alive. I feel free to create a song such as "Can Do It", which is more of a Glam Rock number that is far away from being classic Helloween material - it's more of a wacky song, you know? I am happy to be provided with this opportunity, otherwise people would be constantly telling me off for not recording any classic stuff.

(Note: at that point, Michael becomes very annoyed by the fact that Axxis' crew decides to perform a late sound check and leads me to a 'secret' corridor where, having rejected the option of using the Ladies room and under more 'civilized' circumstances we continue this interview).

Ok, let's talk some more about the twelve new compositions that you guys have created for us. Obviously every person has their own personal favourites, but what I was wondering was which one of these compositions you remember as being more difficult in order to bring to life and why.

Michael: Well, a song like "The Saints" which I wrote is quite difficult to make indeed, with all the different parts that it includes - yet we decided to include it in our set list tonight. You see, our Asian fans really seem to like it and they requested that we should perform this and also "Final Fortune" when we visit their countries.

That is additional work for us, especially performing "The Saints" which is a very fast number and performing it on a daily basis is not that beneficial for the bones of your drummer (laughs). I just made it in this way because I believed that including a fast track on the album would be a really good idea, especially as it has been created in the tradition of bands like Queen.

I have to admit that the choice of melodies was such in order to impress our Japanese fans who like that kind of stuff. You know, it's always difficult to come up with a song that sounds so fast and make it exactly as you've envisioned it the first time round. I had some particular solo melodies that I would have liked to have used in this track which were simply not performable at the speed that I have imagined them in the very beginning. Sometimes you write stuff at a tempo that is very difficult to recreate in a live environment and that was the case here.

It must be very annoying to you as an artist when you realise the limitations of such a task!

Michael: Yes, especially seeing as I know that I want to create 'playable' things. This version of "The Saints" is completely 'playable', still it's already difficult enough to perform live because of the speed involved and personally speaking, I hate degrading human material and drummers.

 I really don't like that and that's not why I wrote this song. For me as a composer, a song like that presents both sides of the knife. We can easily create songs with an average speed of 260bpm or even more, but these are not going to be feasible to perform live everyday - it would be madness! Some bands tend to do that, especially musicians like Charlie Benante (drummer of Anthrax), but he would also be able to tell you a few things about the state of his knees (laughs).

I guess that the same thing applies to a song like "Kill It", which is one of my personal favourites. It is definitely not an easily performable composition, especially in terms of vocals. I assume that Andi really hates you every time he needs to perform this song live.

Michael: He probably would have and that is one of the reasons why we chose not to include it in our set list (note: much to my disappointment). You see, you would have to place a track like that somewhere on the set list that it would not kill your singer's voice. If you have to go on a tour like we do, where we have to perform four days in a row and it is already much more than what I anticipated to be doing at my age, and something happens to your singer's voice, either he catches a cold or gets ill for some reason, then you will have to cancel a few songs, like it happened with Judas Priest on their last tour.

Our goal is to be a reliable band when we go on tour and it hurts us really much every time we have to cancel a show. Normally, we try to repeat such a show at a later point on our tour, but we normally try to avoid doing that because we do not like playing with people's emotions. We hate the idea of disappointing people who paid their money to see a specific show and then having to suffer a cancellation for any good given reason.

Either way, a cancellation is never good, unless you manage to get all the people that were supposed to see the original show on a later date. That never happens though - there are always at least thirty people who end up missing out on a show that they have already paid to attend. We try to avoid things like that and that is why we like to plan everything to the very last detail and avoid, for example, adding a song like "Kill It" on our set list. The whole world may be begging us to do so, still we need to run a tight schedule as we do now in order for things to work as they should.

That is totally understandable, especially seeing as you have enough classic material to cover a three hour set. Talking about albums and set lists, which periods of the band's history do you normally tend to cover these days during a live performance?

Michael: We try to think of stuff that is close to us and that we live with and that our fans like. If, for instance, you leave a song like "Dr.Stein" out of the set list, and believe me when I say that I would love the idea of not having to play this song live as I have been absolutely sick of it from the time I wrote it, people will revolt.

By the way, I believe that this song is particularly fitting for a place like England seeing as it reminds me a lot of bands like the Small Faces and sounds more British than anything else that we have done. I originally had the idea of making this a B-side tack, but Karl, the boss of Noise Records (note: the band's first label), liked this song very much because it sounded to him so much like Judas Priest and wanted us to release it as a single…anyway, we still have to play this song, because people cheer for it and want it every time.

There is a great number of songs like that one that we have to play for the exact same reasons, so we try to place around this 'core' of songs stuff that we would like to play and which we feel that would be interesting for the fans. If you play a song like "Invisible Man" on this tour, then you may not particularly want to perform it on the next one. "Mr.Ego", for instance, has been performed many times so far, so we will probably not include it on our future tours - it is a long and tedious number and you need a particular time and place to perform it in order to give the people a good time and get a good response.

Those are the slow Led Zeppelin-esque numbers that are great but after a while we don't feel like playing them ever again. This has nothing to do with Roland (Grapow/guitars - ex member) and what went on with him - it's just numbers that are great as songs but which you are not particularly happy to play ever again (laughs). It's difficult each time to decide what to put on your set list and it is getting harder by each album that you release.

Michael, as a band, Helloween have made many 'brave' moves towards many 'different' directions, yet the fans were always there to support you. That kind of devotion must be very rewarding for you as an artist. Today, one of the biggest venues in London is going to host a sold out show with you headlining and that is indeed a great achievement!

Michael: It definitely pays out later on. First you piss off your fans with all those drastic moves that you make and a decade later that move pays off. This is actually good and I always feel proud to visit countries like England and Scotland and perform our music. To me it is extra special, especially seeing as we are a frigging German band from Hamburg.

Having said that, the Beatles visited Hamburg plenty of times during their career so the British music fans should have a certain understanding of what it means to be a Rock/Metal band from Hamburg. I tried really hard as a German person to master the English language and be able to come here and do an interview like this one with you even though you may now be thinking that my accent is bad and feel the need to make fun of me or something (laughs)…

Well, that is difficult seeing as I'm Greek and I am not entitled to make fun of anyone's accent (I laugh).

Michael: Well, it doesn't really matter then (laughs). I really like the English way of speaking, though - I really don't like the way the Americans talk, to be honest with you - they don't always understand me when I talk to them, whereas the English always do. I remember telling myself that I wanted to learn English in order to be able to perform this kind of music for people around the world and this is what I did. I knew that this is what I wanted to do ever since I was twelve years old, so I began working towards that goal! It's great being here because not every other German band comes here to play, simply because they are not committed enough to that goal.

Even at the time when they want to do that, they come here and they say "we want to play the Shepherds Bush Empire", right, but they really can't. Being here each time for me is really special, especially seeing as I know how much our fans here really love us. I have sensed this thing and it's been happening ever since we opened for Iron Maiden, many years ago.

We know that we have managed to penetrate the souls of these people and make them cheerful with our music. We know that most of them are really good friends now, always happy to give us beer, tell us jokes and treat us well when we visit them. This is what human being are all about - just don't mention anything about the war, and everything is well (laughs).

Helloween is one of those metal bands that have achieved everything that is to be achieved and there is definitely no need to prove anything to anyone. What do you see as being the ultimate goal for your band to achieve in the year 2008 and also in the future?

Michael: There is no such thing as an ultimate goal. Last time we toured was in support of Iron Maiden whereas we should have worked towards the goal to be the main band ourselves. What we want to do is to write music, make records and sell those records while at the same time keeping the customers satisfied and that is what we tend to do overall.

We try hard and regardless where we go as a band, we always want to achieve bigger and better things. That means that we have to be out on stage every night, even though we are getting older and cannot possibly do those things the same way that we did before. It is getting harder, but on the other hand, that's the sort of thing that we decided to do when we were younger.

Well, as long as you release albums of the quality of "Gambling With The Devil", there is certainly nothing that you have to worry about. Thank you for the interview Michael.

Michael: Thank you.

Interview © 2008 John Stefanis. All rights reserved.

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