Still Alive: An Interview with Ralf Scheepers of Primal Fear

We compose metal because we love heavy metal

An often forgotten victim of the COVID19 pandemic is the entertainment industry. Though it’s easy (albeit mistaken) to imagine that all musicians are rich and therefore can take the financial hit, the fact remains that this is an industry that employs millions of people around the world. Putting an album together, let alone a tour or a festival, is a collective effort that brings together many sectors of the economy that are now paralyzed. The paradox is that we keep forgetting about their needs, even though we rely on them (in the form of TV shows, films and music) in order to cheer us up during these difficult times.

For professional musicians, the show really must go on. Deprived of the revenue that comes from touring (both ticket and merch sales at shows), they are scrambling to find alternative sources of income. At the same time, they have to continue writing, recording and releasing music, lest they disappear from our radars, even when, for many, the stability required by creative pursuits is nowhere to be found.

These are some of the things that I discussed with Ralf Scheepers, the legendary singer of Primal Fear, as they prepare to release their 13th studio album, Metal Commando.

MB: As we all ask each other nowadays…
How are you doing? How were you affected by this pandemic?
Ralf:  Fortunately, I am doing well personally. Of course, professionally, the bad thing is that there are no shows. Right now we would be coming back from a tour and then going to the summer festivals, so it’s a pity that they couldn’t happen. Our fall tour is also postponed until 2021, and that’s what what our booking management is working on at the moment, trying to schedule everything for next year. Pretty much everyone is doing that right now, so it’s going to be very busy in 2021, so hopefully we can then do that again the following year.
So I guess it’s a mixed bag. I still have a lot of work teaching my students and singing for other projects here and there but, on the other hand, I would like to go on stage again!

MB: I can imagine! Plus, nowadays touring represents a much larger share of your revenue, and now that’s gone due to the COVID19 restrictions. I think a lot of people forget that this is a really big industry that goes well beyond just the bands on stage, since it also include the people working at the venues, promoters, caterers, drivers, roadies, etc. It’s a huge financial toll for all of these people, but also an emotional toll, since there’s a lot of uncertainty.
Ralf: Absolutely. We don’t really know who will still be around in 2021.  You don’t know if promoters and venues will survive the crisis… and somehow you have to plan a tour!

MB: And even though there’s hope in the horizon in terms of the disease itself, and infection rates are now more controlled in Europe, large segments of the music and entertainment industry remain completely closed. The entertainment industry is suffering a huge financial crisis, that I think many people simple aren’t aware of.
Ralf: Absolutely. We were the first who were locked down, and we’re going to be the last to return to normal. We’ll see how we survive this. Here in Germany we had a demonstration, all over the country, with people and companies in the entertainment industry (promoters, venues, bands, etc.) lighting red lights as reminder to politicians that we’re still here, and that we won’t survive if they let us down.

Wacken Open Air participating in the “Night of Light” demonstration, illuminating the area of the mainstages with red lights Photo: Wacken Open Air

MB: Speaking of jobs, you actually wear quite a few hats, since you’re not only a singer, you’re also a vocal coach, right?
Ralf: I have several roles. First, I’m the vocalist of Primal Fear; I’m also a singing teacher; and I’m consulting for microphone development with a partner, and I also sell the exact same microphone that I’ve been using for years in all the albums. That’s a major reason for me to stand behind it, actually, because I know what it is and how it sounds, so I know that it’s high-end stuff. Otherwise I couldn’t do it with a  good conscience.

MB: How was it to start teaching?
Ralf: It was 10 years ago. In the beginning I was teaching at a music school, getting good feedback from my students, so everything was really positive. I learned how to deliver my knowledge, which it’s not so easy. I’m glad that I can do that, so they really understand me when I explain things to them. It’s very important that you are able to explain things clearly to your students,  so that they understand what you mean when it comes to, for example, the exercises and how they affect their vocal chords, or how it affects their breathing system.

MB: Speaking of the act of singing itself, what do you think was the most difficult thing to overcome as you developed as a singer. I know that developing your voice as an instrument in itself is extremely challenging.
Ralf: In the beginning we were doing a lot of rehearsals. When I was a kid of 16 or 17, listening to metal, then in the first school band, and then of course later in Tyran’s Pace, my first band, we were rehearsing our asses off. That was the most important thing. That’s where the craftsmanship came from, and where I developed a lot of endurance. If you would have heard me at the beginning… oh fuck, it’s almost 40 years ago already… [laughs] I was hoarse and couldn’t sing after two or three songs, until I learned the technique to do it properly. That was my learning phase, when I educated my breathing system.

Ralf Scheepers (Photo: Heiko Roith)

MB: I first discovered Primal Fear when I visited Germany around the time of the release of Devil’s Ground,  and saw your video for “Metal is Forever” doing the rounds on MTV. Though I absolutely loved it, the vocal delivery of the chorus reminded me a lot of Rob Halford and Judas Priest. As I’d later find out, that comparison was fairly common, and something you had to kind of battle against. How did this comparison affect you?
It’s a good and a bad thing. I mean, it’s good if you’re been compared to the best in the world but, on the other hand, it’s also bad because then people think that you don’t have your own style. I mean, I totally hear my own style, but some people don’t. Of course, I grew up in the 80s, with Bruce Dickinson, Rob Halford, Dio, and so on, but it would have been stupid of me to just try to copy them. It’s not even that our voices sound the same, but maybe we use some similar techniques. If you do belting, screaming high notes, you might sound like Judas Priest or Geoff Tate, that’s just a certain technique that sounds similar.
Every voice sounds different, but I understand that people compare us to Judas Priest because of my singing. The music, however, is different.

MB: You are about to release your new album, Metal Commando. How challenging was it to plan a release during such uncertain times?
Ralf: We couldn’t come together to shoot our photos at first! Our photos had to be taken separately, and then put together digitally. When we got together to shoot the video, even though things were loosening up a bit, Magnus still couldn’t fly from Sweden because of the restrictions, so that’s why he’s not on the video. Of course, it was bummer,  but you can’t change it, everything was restricted. For the second and third video, which were recorded on the same weekend, Magnus still couldn’t fly over here! Shooting the videos was also not easy in the middle of the pandemic, but we’re really glad that it happened.

MB: And what can you tell me about this new album?
Ralf: I love the variety on it. I mean it has power ballads, it has a really long and epic song called “Infinity”, it has has a lot of up-tempo songs with great melodies, and mid-tempo songs with fantastic grooves. We also have a new drummer, which is also very important for the album, because he did a fantastic job;Michael Ehre from Gamma Ray.
For this album, we did what we always do, which is to compose a lot of songs. We have the advantage of having five songwriters in the band, so we had a lot of songs to pick from. In Metal Commando you can really tell that it’s Primal Fear, though one step further than before. That was our goal; it’s not that we felt pressured to make something better than Apocalypse (2018) or anything like that. We just did what we always do! We compose metal because we love heavy metal, and you really hear that on the album.

MB: You’ve been in the band since the very beginning; how do you feel that things have changed for the band in terms how an album is put together.
Ralf: Everybody is still learning. At the beginning we were recording everything over just 3 weeks, in a studio near my hometown. Drums, bass, guitars, and then my vocals at the end. That meant 6 days of singing about 12 songs; that’s a lot of pressure for a vocalist. It was a great learning phase for me too. Of course, I had already been learning when I was in Gamma Ray in terms of recording, but not so much about recording my own voice. Now, over the years, everybody has learned how to create his own sound, and it all matches together much better when it comes to mixing it. And that’s the big difference from when we started, because now everybody (except for the drums) records everything at home in their studio, so the sound fits together much better in the end.

MB: Speaking of drums, what lead to Michael Ehre joining the band?
Ralf: Francesco quit. Sometimes people have their own vision, and you can’t force people to be together. It’s like a relationship or a marriage, sometimes you just don’t get along anymore. We don’t force people to stay with us. That’s why we invited many drummers, not just Michael Ehre, to try out, but in the end he stood out.

Michael Ehre (Photo: Heiko Roith)

MB: I guess that when it comes to recruiting a new band member you really have to look beyond “just” the musical skills, since you have to get along with each other. After all, you’ll be spending a lot of time together on a bus.
Ralf: Absolutely. You also have to work together when you’re on the road. It’s not easy anyway. Even now, after 20 years, we still sometimes arguments here and there. I mean if you’re together for like five or six weeks on the bus with 14 people… it’s not easy [laughs]

MB: But does it get easier or harder as you age?
Ralf: Sometimes it’s more difficult. And that’s probably the reason why bands that can afford it, like Iron Maiden or Judas Priest, would never drive together anymore on a nightliner for so many weeks. Of course we are getting older and we like having our own privacy, but it works because we have a lot of respect for each other, and that’s the most important thing.

Also, the party days are over [laughs] When I started with Primal Fear, there was a party every night of the tour! [laughs] And for me it wasn’t so easy, as a vocalist, to get some sleep when I’d have my bed right behind the boxes of the PA system in the bus, with loud music blasting constantly,and you bumping up and down in your bunk. I mean, it’s not easy to sleep on a nightliner while the bus is moving during the your first week on it.

MB: Speaking of partying. As a singer, of all the things you experience on tour, what creates the biggest problem for you in terms of taking care of your voice.
Ralf: Everything! The good thing is that I don’t smoke but, back when we started, everything was smoking, nobody fucking cared, there was even smoking on the bus (that’s not allowed anymore, which is good for me). And, of course, drinking and not sleeping is harmful, that’s no secret, the first week is fine but, as a vocalist, you’ll then start feeling the effects of your “sins” during the next few weeks of the tour.

Top photo by Hellemania

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