A Ghost in the Moon: An Interview With Tobias Sammet of Avantasia

Few bands create as much buzz as Avantasia. Unlike many of the so-called “super groups” out there, it never felt like a cash grab. Instead, it always felt like an honest effort on the part of Tobias Sammet to satisfy a creative urge that, despite all of their qualities, EdGuy simply wasn’t compatible with.

Recruiting true living legends like Michael Kiske, Bob Catley, Jorn Lande, Alice Cooper, Dee Snider, and a ton of others, Tobi‘s “solo” effort has produced 8 studio albums (Moonglow being the latest), and performed before audiences all over the world. Despite the logistical nightmare that is taking something like Avantasia on the road, Tobi has managed to do just that, and will soon embark in another world tour.

With just a few weeks to go before the release of Moonglow, I spoke with Tobias Sammet about what made this new album different, as well as some of the stories behind this great band.

Metal Blast: Hi Tobi! First of all, happy new year! I’m sure that 2019 is going to be great for you, especially considering that the release of Moonglow, your new album, is just around the corner, as well as a new tour.
Tobias Sammet: Thank you! Happy New Year to you as well, and lots of success and health.
I am very optimistic; I think we’ve got a terrific album. I don’t want to say that it literally “wrote itself,”  but everything went very easily, probably because there was no pressure, no stress, no deadlines, no release date, no record contract… nothing! I just started working on “something,”  and in the beginning I didn’t even know that this was going to become a new Avantasia record. That “proves” my theory that you should just you do whatever you feel, and that you should believe in what your intuition tells you, even if you’re not doing it for reasons like money or fame, or having a plan and a schedule in mind.  You should never really think so much about living up to expectations; you should just do what you feel within yourself, even if there is no reason, no “reasonable reason”, to do it. In this case, I didn’t even know that this was this was becoming a new Avantasia record. I had no record deal, and even by the time that I realized that we were working on a new Avantasia record, I didn’t know if it was going to come out in to 2018, 2019 or 2020. It was just very innocently coming together.

MB: So, at the time that you started to write Moonglow, Avantasia was not signed, meaning you were creating this album not even really knowing whether it be would actually be bought by Nuclear Blast, your current (and former) label.
Let’s start at the very beginning. After Ghostlights I didn’t have any destination. I was a little battleworn… Not by the Ghostlights tour, since that wasn’t really a long tour, but, in general, by the expectations about me created by the pace that I’ve kept throughout the past 20 years, having done so many albums and so many world tours, with me always being responsible and the driving force behind it. I was constantly delivering, and I thought that everybody around me…. I don’t want to say that they took it for granted, because I don’t want to lay blame on anybody;  it was happening automatically, I was demanding it from myself, and it got to a point where I didn’t question the pace anymore.  You start to forget that, first of all, you are just a human being and, second, that it’s art, meaning it’s something that has to be dreamed up, and dreaming up things like Edguy or Avantasia, where you have to reach out into yourself and drag something out, is very demanding, even though you might like or love to do it, and not even feel like it is demanding.
I just wrote music and made the decision that I wasn’t going to do anything anytime soon. I even built a studio for myself. For me, writing music is also a way to let off steam and to get things off my chest musically and lyrically. Like a therapy, a hobby, or whatever you wanna call it. At some point I thought that this was going to be a solo record… but then I thought that I already have a solo project, and it’s called Avantasia! [laughs] That’s when I realized that the material sounded like Avantasia, so that it was going to be an Avantasia record.
I didn’t have a record contract at the time, and I was happy about it because I could work on my own without without telling anybody that I felt as if a storm was gathering in my secret haven, so to speak. I was working like a mad scientist, and nobody else in the whole world knew that I was secretly brewing something together. Of course, once I knew that this was going to become something really good, then I wanted to have a record deal for it, but I didn’t want to deal with it myself, so I hired an attorney to get me a record contract. He and I talked to several record labels, had business meetings, etc., until I finally ended up with the Nuclear Blast, the company that I have been working with for the last 15 years.  I know that it doesn’t really sound like anything has changed, but the whole process was quite different.

MB: Speaking of this “freedom” when it came to writing this album… Although nowadays you can obviously be given some more space, since labels know that you will always deliver a high quality product, I can imagine that it wasn’t always like this. Particularly at the beginning, was there a point when you felt a bit limited or tied up by the contractual aspects of the music business.
Tobi: Not really; I don’t really feel that the record label has ever been and issue in terms of interference. A record deal works like this: They will guarantee that they will spend a certain amount of money for 10 or 12 songs, or  whatever is in the contract. You deliver those songs and they rather wait five more months for something great, than releasing something shitty five months earlier. We’ve always had in our contract that we decide when when something is done, and when they can release. Right from the beginning, our contracts  have never given the label any freedom to have anything to say about which music is on the record and when it has to be delivered. The thing is that, after a while, everybody becomes accustomed to a certain scheme, and even though people don’t stand there and point a gun at you demanding that you deliver something next year, everybody becomes accustomed to a pace that has been established in the past years.
I know that it sounds very cheesy, but I’m a chicken, I’m very, very sensitive, and when I know that somebody is waiting for something, and they look at me, whether it is my band mates, the record company or the agency, I feel it. They don’t really look at me demanding anything, or saying that I have to do this now, but just the fact that they’re waiting already puts some pressure on me, and puts me in a situation that makes me feel a little bit under under a certain amount of stress.  When you have no record contract, and you just say that you’re taking a break, and not doing anything, they don’t have to ask you about a new record, so everybody knows that they can’t expect anything, and that gives you the chance to breathe and work on something without having anybody expecting anything. You get rid of the feeling that everybody is staring at you, demanding you come up with something ingenious [laughs] in the next two months. That’s something that made a huge difference for me; it was not so much about a record label being able to demand anything at a given point.

Avantasia’s 18-year Discography

MB: Do you feel that this duty to come up with, as you said, something “ingenious” is, in a way, the dark side or difficult side of success? That the moment you start performing at a very high level, as I do believe Avantasia and Edguy have done, that this  makes you feel a bit under pressure, in the sense of feeling “I hope I can meet the bar that I have set for myself in the past”?
Tobi: That’s a good question… I have no idea! I try to ignore that, because I have faith that everything I do has a certain quality. If I have control over what I’m doing, then I believe that I will come up with something good; it’s just that if I have to function and fire on all cylinders, then I have to be in charge and set the the rules. One of the rules is that if I have to come up with something, then I have to be in charge of the timing, because you can’t force creativity, you can’t squeeze it as if you were manufacturing toothpaste or whatever. Delivering art, and I’m not talking about just reproducing something that you’ve done before just to sell a couple of records, I mean really delivering something that means something to you, it demands the right state of mind, the right environment, and you being in the right mood.
I don’t really know if having done something good in the past puts pressure on your shoulders. I think that it puts pressure when the industry or the public take for granted that you can deliver something at a pace that you know is not possible. Of course, I’ve gotten a little more sensitive with age, the older I get, the more sensitive I get; it should be the other way around! When people say that I did something at a certain pace in my younger days, and I have to do the same thing now… I have to say that I can’t do it, and that I don’t want to do it. I really can’t do anything that I don’t believe in. Some people can; I envy musicians who compose something, and who can just change everything in a few hours when someone asks them to change it because they want it to be different. I can’t do it! I have to do things that I believe in, and I’m fully aware of the fact that some people will disagree afterwards, that’s in the nature of different opinions, but I have I have a clear conscience; I always deliver, I always do what I think is right, and I always give my very best. That’s all I can do and, I can only rely on my intuition. That’s why I try try to push the pressure away.

Tobias Sammet (Photo: Alex Kuehr)

MB: Speaking of creating art, as opposed to merely reproducing something that you’ve done before. I think that both in the case of Edguy and Avantasia you have always managed to constantly change your style. Neither of them are bands that you can just feel that, between their first and their last records, you’ve just reproduced the same formula. In the case of Avantasia, for example, I feel that you went from a very epic and symphonic power metal style, to a more rock opera feel, that, at least in the case of Moonglow, really reminds me of stuff like Trans-Siberian Orchestra. Do you feel that your approach to songwriting, or the influences that play a role in your music, have changed very dramatically since the Metal Opera.
Tobi: Not really, not as much as some people. I think it’s interesting, because I honestly respect it when people say that I’ve changed a lot; I don’t even tell them that they’re wrong. It’s interesting to have such a different opinion about that topic, although I never really think we’ve changed or that I’ve changed.

MB: Just to clarify though, I don’t mean a “change” in a negative way.
No, no, it’s all good. I  understand, because a lot of people say that, and they don’t necessarily mean it in a negative way. Still, I disagree. I think that we have developed, and I have developed and I’ve opened up to to allow more influences to enter into my inspirational world. Also, I think that when you get older and you develop, and you want to be excited… I mean, the fuel for my art is having excitement and conviction about what I’m doing. That’s what it makes it so difficult to deliver something bite-sized, which the heavy metal world sometimes expects. I understand it and I respect it; I also want my AC/DC record to be bite-sized, so I understand that way of thinking. As an artist, however, conviction and excitement are my drive, so I don’t include new elements that are forced or thought out. I don’t go oh “I need a certain element” or “I need a jazz album now”,  because that would be crazy. I don’t approach it like that; it’s just that I grew as a musician throughout the years and, of course, I can play and sing and arrange stuff that I couldn’t when I was 20. There are people who will say oh “the good old days, when he wasn’t as good it sounded much better” [laughs] I understand that some people will think that way, but I really need to look to the left and to the right and suck up new influences, and and I’m happy.
You know, the reason why Edguy‘s Theatre of Salvation was so fast as a record was quite simple: it’s much more difficult to play slow and still have a groove.  My favorite bands have always been Iron Maiden, Helloween and Dio, but also Deep Purple, Kiss, AC/DC, Def Leppard, Queen;  back then Felix [Bohnke]was a greenhorn on drums; he could play double bass like a machine, but he wasn’t as good when he was not playing double bass drums. That’s why the record got really, really fast. He’s a much better drummer now, and he can play much more demanding stuff, which can be just a very simple beat without double bass drums. It’s the same for guitars; there’s stuff that Jens [Ludwig], for example, played on Age of the Joker that he could never have played on on an album like like Mandrake or Theater of Salvation. It’s the same for me as a vocalist, because I can do many more things now than I could before; I was a one-trick pony back in the day.
I don’t want a bad-mouth anything we’ve done, because we’re proud of everything, but I really respect if somebody says that they preferred when we didn’t think we were good [laughs]
. I think that we’ve changed because now we can play more stuff, and so we have to look to the left and to the right, and do other things. If you don’t move on, and you just make your second album over and over again, the band would be dead within two or three albums, because it just stops being interesting. 

Avantasia at Wacken 2017

MB: One of the things that  have definitely changed for you is your reputation. Now you’re obviously recognized as an extremely talented musician, and I’m sure that it has opened doors when it comes to others musicians being willing to participate in Avantasia. I know that you’ve mentioned that Ronnie Atkins, for example, was someone you would have liked to work with earlier on, but he just wasn’t giving you the time of day back then. Although, of course, there’s always the uncertainty of whether or not someone will say yes, when you write your music do you have a given performer in mind or do you think more in terms of “I hope he can do it but I’m okay if somebody else does something similar”
Sometimes I have a certain performer in mind, especially with the people that I’ve worked with before like Jorn Lande, Michael Kiske, Bob Catley, Geoff Tate,  Ronnie Atkins,or Eric Martin; I have these people in mind when I write for them. Sometimes you write a passage or a song where you have a certain type of voice in mind, and then you find out afterwards who could be the right singer, who is the person that belongs to that voice that you had in mind. Sometimes you write for someone like Meat Loaf, for example, you write with him in mind, and when it turns out you don’t get him, then you sing it yourself [laughs] You have to be open to improvising. It’s a giant jigsaw puzzle, and I have confidence that everything falls into place afterwards. I am stubborn at times, but when you do something like Avantasia, you have to really accept that you won’t get any further by just being stubborn.

MB: Well, to be fair, it sounds more like writing for Avantasia is like starting a jigsaw puzzle without knowing if you’ll end up having all the pieces.
Yeah, but if you work on it for so long… if you don’t get the piece somewhere, you gotta build it yourself. I take a jigsaw and and I cut out the pieces myself! [laughs]

MB: Besides Meat Loaf; are there any other artists that you haven’t been able to convince to perform with you?
Tobi: Of course! I’ve always wanted to work with Bruce Dickinson, but it has never worked out. Rob Halford would be great too. And then, of course, I always wanted to work with Ronnie James Dio. I wanted to have him on The Metal Opera, also on The Scarecrow or Wicked Symphony. I was in touch with them, but he was planning other things and then, of course,  be couldn’t do it or because he was “busy”, and of course now we all know what “busy” meant. He was probably struggling with his terrible cancer. That would have been a dream of mine to work with the the God. He was a God in name and voice.

MB: To conclude; did anything change for you, at least in Germany, either as Avantasia or Edguy, after participating in the German Eurovision competition?
No, no, nothing changed, and I knew that, otherwise I wouldn’t have done it. A lot of people asked me about it, like “Oh, you want to represent Germany!”, while others just said that I was selling out, and asked how I could possibly do that. God’s honest truth is I had a new album coming, out and I was asked to be on prime time TV, on the biggest TV station that you can get, with millions of people listening to my new single, and I didn’t have to adjust anything. I didn’t have to delete any guitars, I didn’t have to wear any stupid costumes… I mean, I wore a stupid costume, but it was my choice! [laughs] I could be myself and just unleash my music onto everybody’s face. When the record company approached me to see if I was open to do something like that, they expected me to say “no”, and were shocked that I said “Yes! Of course! Who am I to get in the way of such a promotional opportunity?

MB: But how does this work? Eurovision approaches the label, and the label offers you the possibility? Who approaches who?
I have no idea. I think that we were suggested. Back then we had a joint venture with a different television station, and they were getting a share of the records sold in Germany, and so they suggested us to the TV station that had the rights to the Eurovision competition,  and I think that’s how it started. Then they asked the label, and the label said that they couldn’t imagine it happening, but that they’d ask me… I remember picking up the phone as I was coming  out of the shower, they offered it to me and I said “Why not? Just let me know when, and what we’ll do, and make sure we’re going to have a decent stage production!”. I don’t regret; it was so much fun, because everyone thought that we were sticking out like a sore thumb… and I can relate to that feeling. It didn’t do us any harm. Of course, some people, especially the “true metal police,” they were really offended but— you know, it’s heavy metal, it’s about offending people. It doesn’t matter who you offend.

MB: At the same time, it’s also silly to be angry about it, because you’d be performing your own music, you’d have a gigantic audience… why would you possibly say no to that?
Tobi: Exactly! We were shocking some of our own fans… every heavy metal band knows how to shock old people in the streets, although not even those people are shocked by heavy metal anymore, so I think it’s even more metal to shock your own audience! That’s bravado!

MB: On that note, I think it’s time for us to wrap up. Thank you very much for your time Tobi, I’m looking forward to seeing you on tour really soon!
Thank you very much we’ll come to the US too, so check the dates and spread the word!

Fredguy Flintstone (“Do me like a Caveman”), by Abbie Stabby