Unlike most people, my first exposure to German power metal was through Gamma Ray and not through Helloween. Their 2003 album “Skeletons in the Closet”, just like Stratovarius‘ “Visions of Europe” blew my mind and showed me how a live recording should sound. Hell, that live rendition of “Gardens of the Sinner” is one of those songs that I can simply listen to over and over and never get tired of it. Because of the above, I have always prioritized Gamma Ray, to the point that during the Hellish Rock Part I, back in 2008, I was there basically for them, even if the real headliner was Helloween.
It was back in that 2008 tour that I had the chance to talk my way into the meet & greet (( I did not blow anybody. )) that they had after one of their shows, and share a brief moment with the band. The fond memories from that brief encounter, particularly of Dirk Schlächter being super cool and giving me one of his picks, made me very excited about the possibility of interviewing them.
So, as part of our coverage of the great PPM Fest 2013, we met with Kai Hansen (vocals/guitars) and Dirk Schlächter (backing vocals/bass) to, as much as our brief time allowed, question them about this magnificent band.
Metal Blast: You just released the mini-maxi single, “Master of Confusion,” as a taste of what I assume is going to be the upcoming record, “Empire of the Undead.” During this tour you have are performing a couple of songs from this upcoming album, how do you feel the reception has been?
Kai: Fucking good, absolutely. I mean, we started the tour when the EP wasn’t even out, so it was just like jumping in the water, but it made people go to the merchandise stand and buy it. By the time the album was out then more and more people started singing along and you know, it’s been going really good.
[Dirk joins in]
MB: If you were to define this upcoming album, in one word, how would you do it? I mean, for instance, No World Order was more of a traditional heavy metal album; what about this one?
Kai: I have a feeling that this one is gonna be more thrashy; but that’s my thing, it depends on what the others come up with, you know.
Dirk: It’s gonna be diverse, in some way. But also it’s gonna be still the Gamma Ray style.
MB: It’s funny that you mentioned thrash because, on the one hand you’re one of the best bands when it comes to heavy metal of course, but also power metal in particular; and, on the other, now you are using thrash which right now is also a very “German” style; I mean, nowadays one of the best thrash bands by far would be Kreator.
Kai: I love the latest album, Phantom Antichrist, fuck yeah.
MB: They’re one of those few bands that started as thrash and said “Fuck it, we’re just gonna continue and not try to soften it up for anybody.” Would you say that Kreator is a big influence when it comes to thrash metal?
Kai: Not really; I mean, we started with them… they started right after. It was funny because we were signed with Helloween already and then the label signed Kreator and when I listened to it the first time I was saying “are you fucking serios? I mean, this is bullshit, you know, you cannot sign it!” No offense, but I thought it was crap.
MB: Kai Hansen tried to keep a job from Kreator. Exclusive!
Kai: No, I mean, I just gave my honest opinion on what I thought at that time, but later on… I mean we all learned and Kreator has become a fucking great band, it’s awesome.
MB: It also has to do with what your background is at first. I remember my first exposure to Kreator was their album “Endorama” and I hated it right away, I couldn’t deal with it… And then it grows into you.
Kai: Yeah, you have to grow with it. I knew Slayer, Venom and stuff like that, and that was kind of the peak of things there, so Kreator in the beginning was not living up to that. But now… yeah!
MB: Are you going to be doing a headlining tour, a club tour for “Empire of the Undead?”
Dirk: Of course.
Kai: Sure, yeah, we’re gonna come up with something. But we’re not gonna do a club tour, we’re gonna do a stadium tour, because this album is gonna be so good!
Dirk: That’s gonna happen in March or April 2014.
MB: Why did you decide to do the Hellish Rock part 2? I remember when I saw the first part in 2008 I thought that it was a one-time opportunity, that it was never going to happen again.
Dirk: It was a nice idea, and then we met again during Helloween‘s next tour, in Hamburg. We all sat together and they said: “Well, we have a nice tour right now, but last time was more fun with you guys, so we could do this again.”
Kai: Yeah, when we ended the first part everybody was kind of “Oh, man, this was so good; it’s so sad that it ends.” It was so successful and so much fun that everybody said that we had to do a Part 2 sometime, but nobody knew when. And this time the opportunity came and we just took it and said “yeah, let’s go for it!”; there was no reason not to do it.
MB: You mentioned that the song “Empire of the Undead” is not a new song, it’s actually a song that was written already.
Kai: Yeah, it’s not a new song; the origins go back to the 1980’s, when I was still together with Piet [Sielck] under the name Second Hell.
Dirk: The dude from Iron Savior.
Kai: Yeah. We had the song “Empire of the Undead”, and the riff and the bridge are basically what they were at that time, although we made some adjustments in the arrangements. I thought that it was cool, the whole vibe of the song is kind of rough and raw, it’s got this 80’s classic metal thing.
MB: Does it often happen that you have a lot of songs in the backburner, stuff that you already have pretty much done, all the elements of the song, but you say, “oh, you know, not now, maybe later”?
Kai: Yeah, it does happen. Many times, yeah.
MB: Do you think that Helloween became what it is now in spite of not being with you or because you were not with them?
Kai: My God, it’s so speculative to say what Helloween would be now if I was there. I don’t really know. I think that they’ve taken a really good way; I really like the latest album, they write great songs, and it’s cool.
MB: You clearly are old friends but does the chemistry still work well when you are on the stage. Is it complex to start, okay now it’s just two very big bands, let’s get all of us on stage together?
Kai: That’s it, that’s the idea, absolutely. For me it’s always about being with Weikie and Markus, because we’re the old band-mates that started out this thing, that’s like the special part; and the rest is just the fun thing of putting us all on the stage and making a heavy metal big-band.
MB: What are the plans now with Unisonic?
Kai: Unisonic is for me, at the moment on ice, because I’m too busy with Gamma Ray, and there will come a time when we’re done with the album and touring for it when I’ll move into that other world again for a while.
MB: I must say that last Friday, when Avantasia was playing here, I was really crossing my fingers hoping that I was gonna see you show up on stage.
Kai: No, no…impossible.
MB: Yeah, of course because of the Hellish Rock tour, but do you think that collaboration is over and done with?
Kai: I don’t know. It’s maybe not up to me to say…
Dirk: Tobias always does what comes into his mind
Kai: Yeah, I mean he plans the things and whatever, he’s like…
Dirk: He asks the people, he has a vision and he does it.
MB: What can we expect from this upcoming album, “Empire of the Undead?”
Kai: Something diverse, something Gamma Ray, something that we don’t even know what’s it in the end gonna be like. I mean, “Master of Confusion” and “Empire of the Undead” are my cup of tea in terms of the the direction I wanna go… but I don’t fucking know what the others come up with when we put it all together, cook it up and see what happens.
Dirk: We’ll make a good meal!
MB: This tour is mostly “Skeletons and Majesties” songs. Why did you decide to go with that one instead of a caompilation of the best songs.
Kai: Because we don’t wanna get bored with ourselves and we don’t wanna bore people. It’s better to do something different for a change, and not play Rebellion in Dreamland or Land of the Free over and over…
Dirk: But, actually we did a really nice mixture on this tour; Skeletons and Majesties is the last release, so we played these songs and some olds songs. What more?
Kai: One hour more…
MB: Guys, thank you so much for your time. It’s been a pleasure!