Helloween interview (10/2003)
|With:||Markus Grosskopf [bass]|
There is plenty of choice within the power metal scene these days. And with every new month, there seems to be another couple of acts striving for attention in what seems to be an over saturated market. However, if there's one act that deserves credit for kick starting the whole movement, and constantly re-inventing the scene with innovation and constant change, it has to be Germany's Helloween.
Although the initial seeds of the group were founded as far back as 1979, it wasn't until 1985's mini-L.P. 'Helloween' that the band truly made their debut. The hastily recorded full length 'Walls Of Jericho' established the band in the metal circle, but the recruitment of Michael Kiske [Who replaced Kai Hansen on vocals] really placed them in history.
The string of albums 'Keeper Of The Seven Keys Part I' , 'Keeper Of The Seven Keys Part II'  and 'Live In The U.K.'  kept them at the top, but then things started to go sour. Both fans and critics savaged 1991's 'Pink Bubbles Go Ape', and 1993's 'Chameleon' seemed to nail shut the coffin on Helloween's once illustrious career. Kiske soon left, with former Pink Cream 69 vocalist Andi Deris taking the front man's role. 1994's 'Master Of The Rings' found the group in a huge return to form, and things looked to be back on track.
With a newfound sense of purpose, Helloween albums were churned out as regular as clockwork, starting with 1996's 'The Time Of The Oath' and the double live effort 'High Live'. The covers album 'Metal Jukebox' soon followed 1998's 'Better Than Raw' in 1999. The band then signed to Nuclear Blast, with 'The Dark Ride'  giving Helloween the worldwide coverage that had eluded them since Kiske's departure.
Prior to the unveiling of the Helloween's eleventh studio effort 'Rabbit Don't Come Easy', I had the pleasure of catching up with one of Helloween's founders and bassist Markus Grosskopf to discuss line up dramas, frogs and metal reggae!
- Line up changes are hardly new to Helloween, but with the dismissal of both Roland Grapow [Guitars] and Uli Kusch [Drums] has left a lot of people wondering if Helloween are still capable of making an album that will still maintain the integrity and sound the band is renown for.
People didn't know what to expect after our last album 'The Dark Ride', or after the split with Uli and Roland. They genuinely wondered what we were going to come up with next. It left people wondering if we could still do it, and if we would still carry on with this direction. So this album ['Rabbit Don't Come Easy'] is like going back to what Helloween does best. Sometimes, when we change a line up, or if we make an album a fan doesn't like, people think that we can't do it again. From album to album, that's the biggest mistake people make with Helloween. There are a lot of bands out there that have one or two songwriters, and everything is in a very similar style, or relate too much to each other. 'Rabbit Don't Come Easy' is a record with four songwriters, but with totally different kinds of ideas going on. That's what makes for the wide variety on offer I guess. It also gives people a different idea about every song, which is interesting. Especially now, considering this latest line up change. When Masterplan's album ['Masterplan', and featuring both Roland and Uli along with vocalist Jorn Lande] came out before the new Helloween album, some people thought that's it! You can always expect more things coming out of Helloween.
- The common understanding behind Roland and Uli's dismissal was purely for musical differences [And because their side projects were taking priority over Helloween], but that appears to be only half the story. The other half still remains somewhat of a mystery.
There were discussions about a lot of things. It wasn't just musical things, but also personal issues as well. We just felt that something wasn't right. If you feel that something is wrong, you just can't go along with it any longer and leave it as is. You have to change it if you feel something isn't right. You try to change it into something better, and that's exactly what we did. It just wasn't going to work in the future with the situation we had. We had discussion, and some very heated talks, and it just wasn't comfortable. In the end, we decided to carry on without them.
- With Roland now out of the picture, the search for a new drummer was on. Enter stage right, new guitarist Sascha Gerstner [Formerly of Freedom Call fame].
He's working out really well, and you can hear it on the new album. He wrote three tracks for the new album too. Coming from Freedom Call, he already comes from a background of similar sort of nature to us. It wasn't a big deal for him to think on our level. After all, we have been doing this sort of music for years and years. He's also a brilliant guitar player. It wasn't too complicated to get his ideas and songs into a typical Helloween tune.
- Finding a new guitarist was the easy part. Drummers on the other hand…
[Laughs] Yeah, tell me about it! This time it was a pain in the ass. We thought it might be a good idea to get Mark Cross [Ex-Metalium drummer] in the band, because we know him, and the time he was living in Hamburg, we hung out a lot anyway. We asked him to play with us in the band, and after we had some really good rehearsals, we all agreed to ask him to join as a full time member. But then when he was supposed to play in the studio, he got this terrible Epstein Barr virus. It takes away all of your energy, and you can't really do anything. As long as you're sitting there and doing nothing, you feel all right. You might get a little bit tired here and there, but as soon as you start doing something, you just can't deal with it. Your whole system is just failing. Not even the doctor could tell him how long this virus will affect his body. In the end, we just had to move on. We didn't have time to wait. We did question ourselves as to how long we could wait, but we decided to move on. We had the plan of using Mickey Dee [Motorhead] on half of the record, with the idea of giving Mark a couple of weeks off to maybe recover, or something like that anyway. We were able to work on five or six tracks during that time, putting down the guitars, bass, the choirs and the vocals. We left Mark at home recovering, while we were getting back into the production trying to do at least half of the album. But this wasn't happening. After eight or nine weeks, we called Mark back into the studio to try and get the other half done. The virus was still too strong, which hindered him from doing any activity at all. So we had to call up Mickey again to do the rest of the album. It's a sad story because we had the line up, and then something like this happens.
- So after the completion of the album, Helloween introduced their third [And final might I add] drummer in, within a year, Stefan Schwarzmann.
Stefan used to be in Accept, and then he played in Running Wild. He was in a couple more German heavy metal bands too. He's been around like…forever! He just never stopped drumming, touring, being in bands and playing this kind of music. Michael [Weikath, guitarist] had the idea of doing some covers for some B-sides, and it's always been a tradition of ours anyway. So when Weikath decided to do Accept's 'Fast As A Shark', it reminded us of Stefan. We just asked him to do the B-side tracks, and a couple of days later we asked him to be a part of Helloween. We just invited him for the listening session, had a couple of days just hanging out with him, and it was nice. He's a nice and cool guy. He plays the drums very well, and now we have a new line up! [Laughs] After all we've been through, it seems to have settled down now! Things just happen, and you kind of react somehow! [Laughs] Sometimes it's not that funny, especially with Mark, Uli or Roland, but you just have to make your mind up and find a way to carry on somehow. It's not always easy, but it has to be done.
- When the discussion finally turns toward the album, the most obvious question to ask is just what exactly inspired the crazy title 'Rabbit Don't Come Easy'?
It's based on that English saying, pulling a rabbit out of the hat. Pulling this rabbit [Record] out of this hat [The whole line up situation] wasn't that easy this time. That gave us the idea of just calling the album 'Rabbit Don't Come Easy'. [Laughs] It's not to be taken too seriously. We were joking that statement around, and then I suggested we actually call the album that.
- It does make you wonder wether Marcus had actually thought the title through properly, and if he was aware that people might not understand it's meaning and label the band as just another bunch of crazy Germans?
Yeah, and that's why we called it what we did. This is not another version of 'The Dark Ride' album. That album was very serious. We actually wanted something that when people see the album cover and title, they will know that this is going to be a little more funny, crazy and not all that serious. It shows what the record is all about. We have a lot more of that 'happy happy Helloween' in there again this time, and that's what we wanted to show with the artwork from the very first time fans look at it.
- After the darker sound that made up the dominant part of 'The Dark Ride', Helloween made sure they have complete artistic control over 'Rabbit Don't Come Easy'.
When we recorded 'The Dark Ride', it sounded like it did because certain people wanted us to work with other certain people. We let people come in and mess with the arrangements, and re-work the lyrics, and generally do just what they wanted. They wanted us to work like that, and we agreed. If they wanted us to do it that way, then we were willing to give it a try and see what happened with it. 'The Dark Ride' was a result of that very different kind of working environment we were placed in. But then you have something that isn't much of a traditional Helloween album either. It's a good album, and there are many good tracks on it. It's a typical Helloween album, and it felt good, but now that we've done this album, it shows that we can do our best when left to our own devices. Nobody came in and touched a thing. The idea to do this album on our own came independently. We came up with 'Rabbit Don't Come Easy', and I think it's very cool.
- When it comes to the song writing side of things for Helloween, diplomacy and delegation seem to play a big part in shaping an album.
When it comes to songs, it's just a matter of who has some good ideas. Those are the ones that make it onto the album. You never know who's got the best ideas. Weikath writes the typical type of Helloween stuff, while Andi has a certain kind of writing style where he can find some commercial aspects within a song. We like them sometimes. When you put all that together, you create a picture. Sometimes it's a little bit more of this, and other times it leans toward a little bit more of that. Sometimes we ask certain members if they have something more along the lines of a certain style. When you don't have the entire picture, you can call upon a certain member to help get toward the complete picture. We just sit together and do this and that, and it's not a matter of anybody getting more songs on the album that anyone else. It's not always easy, but its working O.K. so far! [Laughs] We have loads of ideas, and they all make their way onto tape. We only have something like sixty minutes on a C.D., and when we get to the rehearsal room, there's a whole lot more material than that. We simply choose the best from it. Most of the extra material ends up as B-sides or bonus tracks. We just try and pick the best bits and pieces.
- The lead single lifted from the album, 'Just A Little Sign' is certainly indicative of the happier side of Helloween.
The record company also wanted us to show that were are back. This song represents the more typical side of Helloween, and that's what we wanted to make clear. You can't really represent a whole album with one track, but this shows exactly where the album actually goes. It's more of that 'happy happy Helloween' direction. It shows that this album is not a sequel to 'The Dark Ride'. The album is so new and exciting to me that it will still take me a couple of years to pick a personal favourite. It wouldn't be fair to the other poor tracks. They all have the same laugh in the studio! [Laughs] They all needed the same working, and they all needed the same kind of love.
- Helloween's 'The Dark Ride' boasted one of the band's best production sounds ever [With Roy Z and Charlie Bauerfeind deserving the credit]. 'Rabbit Don't Come Easy' sees Helloween again work with Charlie Bauerfeind [Who has worked with Hammerfall and Blind Guardian in the past], with the results speaking for themselves.
It all came down to different tracks. On 'The Dark Ride', we had all these down-tuned riffs, which cried out for a different sound. This time though, the songs needed more of that open kind of sound. These tracks are so much different from the ones on 'The Dark Ride'. That different sound is what Charlie is very good at, if you ask me. He puts all the sound into what the track really needs. He's got a very good ear to what the song really needs. I think we've got it pretty much down on this album, in regards to what the song needs, and how to build the songs sound up.
- Talk on the individual numbers could run well into the night, but there's really only one thing that needs to be asked about. That track is the closing number 'Nothing To Say'. Not only does it feature some heavy metal reggae, but it also closes with the sound of several croaking frogs!
[Laughs] The reggae section is what it's all about. It doesn't make any sense. There's no concept to it. It's nice, and surprising I guess. It's also showing traditional sounding music done with a modern sound and in a modern way. We though we would give it a go. I think it works very well. I think the whole section is fucking funny! [Laughs] And then you have all the frogs at the end. They used to hang around the studio. The keyboard player went out and recorded them, and we added them to the album. That makes sense. Everything after that makes so much sense! [Laughs]
- You know you have it made when a tribute album is made in honour of your band. Helloween, to date, have four in to their name.
Some of them are very funny, but some of them I haven't heard yet. Some are from the Eastern countries, and there are some doom, black and death metal bands on the albums. They could have easily taken one of the faster songs, something that would have fitted more their type of music, but they do songs like 'Dr. Stein' or 'Futureworld' and put them into a very aggressive doom/death/black metal way. That's something I find very funny! [Laughs] At first I was surprised, but now I'm used to it! [Laughs]
- As time draws to a close, I asked Markus wether Helloween had ever considered compiling all their promotional video clips into one package for a D.V.D. release. After all, there has to be some priceless footage after being in the business for over three decades!
We were thinking about doing it this time around, but we decided to wait until the next album. That way we can make it a proper D.V.D. with live, studio material and other footage. That was our rough idea, but we just don't know yet. Sometimes we try to gather up bits and pieces of footage, but everybody is lazy and nobody picks up the camera! [Laughs] That's another reason why we have to wait and gather up more material. We actually have a new promotional video clip for 'Just A Little Sign'. It's like a 3D animation film, with the band members added into it. It's a nice little story with loads of pumpkins and a star ship. It's nice.
I would like to personally thank Markus Grosskopf for his generous time. I would also like to thank John Howarth [Riot! Distributors] and Markus Wosgien [Nuclear Blast] for making the interview possible.
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