I was really excited to finally meet with Tobias Sammet. I had tried (a lot ) to get an interview with him several times before, but the label had given priority to bigger (albeit not nearly as cool) media. It comes with the territory.
If you follow my writing (and you absolutely should) then you know that I absolutely loved Ghostlights, the new Avantasia album. It strikes such a perfect balance between power metal and traditional hard rock (as difficult as that might be to believe) that I simply fell in love with it. Clearly I’m not the only one, as “Mystery of a Blood Red Rose,” the first single of the new album, might end up representing Germany at the upcoming Eurovision Song Contest.
Obviously, I was more than happy to talk with Tobi about this and more.
MB: I’ve heard you’re doing quite a bit of press for this release. I guess it’s good to know there’s a lot of interest for the new material.
Tobi: It’s really overwhelming, I don’t know what to say. I’m really taken. I was just talking with Sascha [Paeth] this morning, my producer, and I was telling him how I always get positive feedback, but this time it’s even a little bit more positive! [laughs] I’ve done like 400-something interviews!
I was just told by the label that the record is coming out in 155 countries. There are some major markets, like pretty much every country in Western Europe, so I’m doing 12 interviews for this country, then 15 for that one, 25 for that other one, then 65 for Germany… it’s crazy, but I feel honored. I have to remind myself all the time that I feel honored! [laughs]
MB: Don’t 400 conversations about the same topic bore you or bother you?
Tobi: No, it’s exciting! [laughs] It’s really OK. I’m thankful; I’m not one of those pricks that will just be like “next question…”. I think it’s disrespectful if you act like that when the people are interested in what you do. It’s very natural that you may ask questions that I might have heard before, that’s a normal thing.
You only have one life, as far as I know, and you should try to spend every minute making sense. I don’t want to kill that time on the phone like a computer or a robot, just saying “yeah, it’s a great album, yeah, Dee Snider is great…“. I don’t like to speak like that, it’s disrespectful; otherwise I’d rather just be self-consequent and not do interviews at all. When I have a conversation with somebody then, at that moment, that person is the most important person in the world, and that’s how you should approach thing, even when talking with people in general.
That’s how I approach things. If it’s reasonable to do a certain thing, and even though some people may find ways to consider them no fun, I want them to turn into something fun! I never ask myself whether I should do more interviews; I have to do them, I will do them. And so, I’ll just try to squeeze some fun out of them; otherwise all I have are the options of not doing them and starve, or do them and be miserable. It doesn’t make sense
MB: Speaking about things that don’t make sense. How did you end up in the Eurovision contest?!
Tobi: We’ve just been asked to take part in the preliminary for the Eurovision song contest. It’s a very big thing and a lot of people thought “What the fuck are you doing!? Why are you doing it? How can you make a commercial show like that?!” I have one life, I have one career, and I haven’t done anything like that before. If I can expose my music to so many people doing what I do… I mean, I don’t have to play music that I hate, I can play the music I want, the music I believe in, do exactly what I want, and expose it to people who’ve never heard about me (some may have). Why not do it? I’m excited about it, let me do it, give me that stage. It’s just a normal stage, there’s nothing wrong with it. There are a couple of TV cameras, sure, but, so what? I’ve done TV things before!
MB: Well, I’ve seen Eurovision, and I think that the music there is just horrible…
Tobi: Absolutely! [laughs]
MB: It’s great that suddenly you have the opportunity to have this music there, and that you’ll be able to expose it to more people, instead of just not going because it’s not “true”. On the contrary, trying to bring more people to enjoy this kind of music is the greatest thing that you can do!
Tobi: Absolutely; I see myself not on a mission for my country, like some people go there with their flags and all that. The heavy metal and the hard rock world are a secret society anyway, so… well, first and foremost, I’m on a mission for myself [laughs] I don’t wanna say that it’s a mission for my wallet [laughs]
MB: Well, it definitely won’t hurt it. When Lordi represented Finland and won it helped them a lot, and that’s great.
Tobi: Yeah, totally. I think that what Lordi did was great, because they just went there and were just flipping the bird at the whole aristocratic part of the European music industry, and that was a fun thing. Everybody out there was like “this is not dance music!”. Yeah, it’s honest, ugly, heavy metal… and all of a sudden they ruled the music industry in Europe for a while. It was great, because it really wasn’t meant to be, at least if you asked the patrons of the big time European music industry… but they weren’t asked, the people spoke!
Unfortunately, this kind of music flies a lot under the radar. Old school rock and metal was something that was fashionable 35 years ago; maybe some of it in the 80’s, if it was polished enough. You really don’t see much Meat Loaf or Queen in mainstream radio or television lately, it’s just not happening.
If they would have asked me to write a song for Eurovision that fit the format I would have said no, but since they just asked me to take a song that’s in the new album anyway, go on TV and perform it live… why not?
MB: It’s a great opportunity; more people will see your music and maybe heavy metal will get the respect it deserves as a musical genre.
Tobi: I’m not sure if it’s a good thing if this kind of music becomes “mainstream,” but I don’t think it will happen. It will never a widely-respected type of music. But it feels good to, now and then, flip the bird, show your face, and show that it exists.
MB: I think part of the metal community doesn’t really want others to know the bands the they listen to, so the minute they become famous it means they “sold out.” For me it’s the opposite; I want more people to enjoy this music! If that happens with Avantasia, that’s great
Tobi: That would be perfect, of course!
MB: When the Metal Opera came out, it had a very epic feel. There was this more traditional fantasy concept behind it, something that changed with The Wicked Trilogy, leaving more to interpretation. Why did you decide to make this change?
Tobi: I can’t really say, because I’m not sure if I did that on purpose. I think that, for some reason, if something is too obvious, if you can see everything, it doesn’t leave you any room to interpret anything. I felt that the first record was a fairytale; a fairytale with an interesting topic and an interesting background, but still like a novel. To me, that was just too obvious, since I was explaining everything in detail, so people didn’t have to think about anything.
It’s like watching a horror movie called 3-Headed Shark, where you see a cheap animated 3-headed shark 4 and a half minutes into the movie, and you see him eating everyone for 85 minutes, and everything is so blatantly there, in front of your face, that it doesn’t really leave much to interpretation. Of course, how can you interpret a 3-headed shark? [laughs] I wanted to do something more abstract, something that left more room to think and to project your own thoughts into. I wanted to do something that I could relate to. Believe it or not, I’m not a novice of a monk [laughs] Of course, I’m not a mad scientist either, but it was too obvious, so I wanted to move away from that.
Sometimes when we do the song “Farewell,” I look at Amanda Somerville and we have to bite our tongues (each bites their own [laughs]) just to not start laughing, because the lyrics are very “un-metaphoric”; they’re not the kind of lyrics that I would like to do being a 38 year-old songwriter. I love that song, but there’s nothing between the lines, it’s just a description… it’s a bit cheesy. I don’t want to badmouth my old work, because I’m really proud of what I’ve done, but I prefer my lyrics now.
It’s been 15 years since The Metal Opera was released, and seeing footage of “Reach Out For the Light” performed live for the first time still gives me goosebumps. It’s great, I love it, but lyrically it isn’t what I want to do nowadays. I don’t think it’s too far from what I do now, but I think that its creator sounds like he’s gotten 15 years older [laughs]
MB: Speaking about badmouthing your own music, I recall you poking some fun at your own songs, particularly with EdGuy, with songs like Save Me (“we made this song to get on the radio and be the next Aerosmith”) and Land of the Miracle (“this is for all the wimps and posers”)
Tobi: I do this kind of things not because of the song; I just try to say things that make people happy and that show that we don’t take ourselves too seriously. I love those songs, otherwise I wouldn’t sing them. “Save Me” is an amazing ballad, and I obviously didn’t make it to see if I’d get on the radio, I did it because I believed in that song. When you do things like that there’s always some prejudice towards it, since there will always be people who say that since we’re doing a ballad, we wanna be like 3 Doors Down, and wanna be in the radio. I try to ride that wave and push it a little, just to show that we don’t give a fuck, and I think most people get it the way I mean it.
I like to show people that I don’t take myself as seriously as people assume I do. That doesn’t mean that I don’t take the music seriously. I take it very seriously.
MB: Now, since we’re running out of time. What can you tell me about the concept that exists behind Ghostlights?
Tobi: It’s about how I perceive that we’re moving faster and faster in our environment. This day and age in which we live is not very nice, not very “human friendly;” everybody seems stuck in a treadmill trying to keep up the pace that is forced upon us, without thinking what for. Everybody is running, but nobody knows what for and where to. I came up with a question, if maybe there is someone behind that whole movement, and who’s interested in keeping us running so that we don’t have any energy left to care about what truly matters in life.
The story is done in the context of Victorian England, with a young agnostic scientist who joins a group of scientists who are trying to manipulate everyone’s perception of time. They want to align everybody’s pace to make everyone come together a little closer. Our young protagonist finds out that there’s a secret force behind it, and which is trying to speed up people in order to control them, to keep them from asking spiritual questions.
I think that the topic is not very far away from what we covered in The Metal Opera. This time it’s just a little more metaphoric, leaving a little more room for interpretation. I love the topic, I love the album, and it’s just exciting.
MB: Before I let you go, there’s something I wanna know. I’ve heard rumours that the backstage at an Avantasia concert is pretty strict, almost militaristic. With rules about singers not talking, that people shouldn’t talk to you, etc. Is any of this true?
Tobi: No! [laughs] There’s nothing strict about it, it’s like a school excursion. Everybody talks bullshit! [laughs] What is true is that I try to not talk a lot when I’m on tour, and when my voice gets exposed to a certain amount of stress. We’re playing 3 hours every night and I’m pretty much involved in every song that we play, so it’s very demanding for the vocal chords. This is why I try not to talk too much when I’m on the road, but there are no rules backstage… except for having a great time, lots of red wine, and enjoying ourselves. It’s actually the opposite!
MB: Well Tobi, as much as I’d love to continue talking, I know you have other interviews to do. So thanks a lot for the time!
Tobi: Thank you very much and have a great day!