Blind Guardian: Inside Hansi Kürsch’s imagination

Imagination is, without a doubt, an artist’s best tool. In literature and art, the frontier between real life and imaginary worlds has often been represented by mirrors. They show us a world similar but opposite to the one we live in, a world we’ll never be able to reach. What if artists were explorers, possessed of the key to step through the mirror and come back with memories from their travels, pieces of dreams that will give us laymen a glimpse of these unattainable worlds?

Mirrors, imagination and fantasy worlds that reflect the real one are precisely the foundation of Blind Guardian’s new record, Beyond The Red Mirror, which is a conceptual sequel to Imaginations From The Other Side, released 20 years ago. This extremely Blind Guardian-sounding album, full to the brim with musical prowess, is a new cornerstone for the band in terms of orchestration – an appetizer before their long-expected fully orchestral album, that should be the culmination of their career in this respect.

Hansi Kürsch talks about Blind Guardian’s ambitious new album and explains the links with the 1995 album, for an in-depth analysis of the band’s imaginative world.

« If you listen to a Blind Guardian album, if you count the parts that there is within one song, it’s sometimes as much as other bands reveal on a whole album! [Laughs] »

Radio Metal: Beyond The Red Mirror comes out almost five years after At The Edge Of Time. Ever since Imaginations From The Other Side, Blind Guardian had a new record every three or four years. Is this because making a Blind Guardian album actually needs a lot of time, more than the average heavy metal record?

Hansi Kürsch (vocals): I would say so. This is one of the reasons. If you listen to a Blind Guardian album, if you count the parts that there is within one song, it’s sometimes as much as other bands reveal on a whole album! [Laughs] Because some bands have a cut and paste ideology, so they basically just record the third of the song and then they do the cut and paste thing until the end of the song. Then the vocalist has to come up with different lyrics so that it doesn’t become too obvious. But this is not the case in Blind Guardian. We don’t know where any of the songs will end when we’re starting the songwriting. Another reason is – and it’s probably more important – that the amount of time we’re spending on tour has increased incredibly, so the period in-between albums has naturally become bigger. And then we had the best of album and A Traveler’s Guide To Space And Time box, we have put a lot of efforts in this. So, for us, the songwriting period only lasts for two and a half years. We started the songwriting in April 2012 and we ended it up in August 2014. In the meanwhile we also did the production. It takes a while to create these songs. This, obviously, has also something to do with the elements in the music. If you work with an orchestra, if you go to Prague or Budapest and you have a 90 piece orchestra sitting there, you have to be pretty sure that it works out fine. You can’t try anything, so you have to make sure everything is well prepared.

Speaking of which, this time you have used three different classical choirs and two grand orchestras featuring 90 musicians each. Did you feel like going to the next step in your orchestral work with this album?

No, not really. Of course it was an attempt to figure out how far we could get but, mainly, it’s based on the simple fact that we needed two different orchestras on different occasions. They don’t play at the same time. One orchestra does something and the other does something else. The same can almost be said about the choirs. There’s just one particular part, and that’s in “The Ninth Wave”, the introduction part, which really needed the massive amount of voices, otherwise we wouldn’t get the impact that we were longing for. This was really the idea of having something Carmina Burana like, which is a two hundred piece choir, and we couldn’t get that by dubbing the same voice over and over again, you don’t get that organic size. So, since we couldn’t get a two hundred people choir, it was impossible, we needed to work with different choirs for that particular occasion. For the other parts, it would have been ok to work with just one choir. We needed some English-speaking choirs and therefore we needed the American choir. Other than that, it was more a logistic thing than becoming bigger and bigger, that’s not the case.

On the previous album you had the songs “Sacred Worlds” and “Wheel Of Time” which where two quite impressive and complex songs recorded with a real orchestra and choir. What did you learn from these previous experiences and how did this album benefit from it? And did these experiences actually allowed you to go further this time?

It did but it also helped us in finding out that there are more chances to involve the orchestra into the band playing. There are several options, like if you compare “Sacred World” and “Wheel Of Time” you would see that the treatment of the band is quite different. In “Sacred World”, the band plays an almost as important role as the orchestra whereas pretty much everything is focused on the orchestra in “Wheel Of Time”, and this was the first experience to split things a little, if you work into that direction. And both had to be composed organically. There was no chance for us to involve it if it wouldn’t have made sense. There was never a question of deleting anything from the band to let the orchestra shine more, but on the other hand, we tried to compose things that made the orchestra shine. These were the two most important experiences we did when we made At The Edge Of Time. On this album we just tried to take profit from that and find new feels like we did on At The Edge Of Time, like how we used the orchestra in “The Ninth Wave” where it has a more distorting, modern approach. We were trying to combine the ages there. It is a developing process, there’s no question, and I’m sure that we’ll be continuing this way because our next album’s going to be the orchestral album and this needed all this pre-work.

How do you differentiate yourselves from all these classic meets metal things we saw emerging these past years and what is your opinion on this fashion?

It is a fashion. There’s a fascinating aspect because rock and classic are linked together, more from the rock side than the classic side because they still refuse to like rock [laughs]. But for a metal band, it’s very tempting because many elements in metal music have that classical approach. In both cases it’s sort of larger than life music. So the combination makes it even larger than life. Therefore I understand the reason why so many bands are doing it. I was impressed ever since I first listened to Deep Purple’s Live At Royal Albert Hall. Deep Purple’s one of my favorite bands, I thought that was a masterpiece album and I liked the idea ever since. So when this album had made its impact on me, it had also made an impact on all the other people and they, of course, needed one day to figure it out. Nowadays with the technical opportunities that we have, it’s very tempting to do something like this. We treat the orchestra differently, that’s how we differ from all the other bands. Because you’ll figure that the songs are written for Blind Guardian and the orchestra. And this will become more obvious when the orchestral album is going to be released because this is really Blind Guardian music only with orchestra and me doing the singing. That will become very, very obvious. But I also think that on this album people will see a significant difference to what other bands are doing with an orchestra, without downgrading that because they have their own ideology or philosophy in dealing with it.

« [The mirror] represents so many things which are sort of obvious but still untouchable and I like that. »

Beyond The Red Mirror is a sequel to the Imaginations From The Other Side album. What gave you the idea and motivation to do a follow up to this album specifically?

It was partly a coincidence. I was working on lyrics and I’ve had some plots already, like the one in “Ashes Of Eternity” of a time threatening person who, obviously, manipulates times. At that point I hadn’t given any thought in a conceptual album but all of a sudden, when we did the promotion for the box, Imaginations From The Other Side came to my attention. At the same time I was reading Doctor Sleep by Stephen King, he did the same thing with his Shining boy and I liked the idea. When I saw Imaginations, I thought: “Hey, here’s the boy in front of the mirror. Let’s go back and see what he’s done!” And I decided that no, he didn’t dare to jump back then and this is how the story starts. And I asked to myself: “Well, if he didn’t jump, what happened?” It all got together. Then I had some of the issues that I had to clarify, like the time threatening thing, and I was like: “Ok, his world has changed into a more fantasy-like world while the fantasy has turned into a more dystopian George Orwell kind of world.” Then I just thought: “Ok, if this threat abuses time, then let’s time become, actually, a physical person to make that possible.” Then the whole thing changes into a sort of modern quest for the Holy Grail, we can say. Because on Imaginations there are so many links to the Arthurian epic and I took that back as well.

And there’s a song called “The Holy Grail”…

Yeah. This actually came in by Fredrick [Ehmke, drummer] who delivered his first composing to us. I didn’t keep any of the lyrics but I kept the title because I thought: “Oh, ok! There’s ‘Mordred’s Song’, there’s ‘A Past And Future Secret’ and this also deals with time, and now we have ‘The Holy Grail’.” Everything got together at some point.

Next year will actually be the 20 year anniversary of Imaginations From The Other Side. How do you view this album today? Do you feel it stands in a special place in Blind Guardian’s discography?

It’s different between the band members. André [Olbrich, guitarist] consider it to be the best Blind Guardian album. For me it’s one of the best Blind Guardian albums but it won’t be my favorite. My favorite would be Nightfall In Middle-Earth: I still think it stands out and it defines the end of a period for Blind Guardian, while Imaginations was just one album out of a lot of good ones. It’s not so significant for me but it is for André, like I said, and it is for a lot of people. I certainly think that with this one we draw a lot of attention, that’s for sure.

How would you compare the band from then that made Imaginations From The Other Side and the band now?

If I compare [the first Blind Guardian album] Battalions Of Fear to now, it would be drastic. But the changes between Imaginations and Beyond The Red Mirror aren’t that drastic to me because the spirit was laid either with Somewhere Far Beyond or with Imaginations, depending on the point of view. They have that classical approach already. So I would say that they are sort of fundamental from this point of view. But I feel that we’re still delivering the same spirit as what we did back then. Of course we became more progressive, we maybe became more complicated, but almost everything could be seen already on this album.

Could we possibly see a parallel between the young protagonist that’s on Imaginations From The Other Side and which becomes adult on Beyond The Red Mirror and you? Would you say that you were a very imaginative young boy, building and visiting worlds of your own, and that this is still what you’re doing now with Blind Guardian?

There is also that link to my person and whenever I do lyrics, no matter if they are fantasy related or not, they have that perspective. And especially if we talk about Imaginations and this one, they’re related to what I’ve seen and to the way I look at the sensation of imagination in general. I believe this is the most valuable gift that mankind has to create stories and have that fantasy. And therefore, it obviously is a part of me but I wasn’t considering me to be the boy back when we did Imaginations. I don’t think that you can consider me to be the character because I’m far older! [Laughs] The guy I’m talking about nowadays is thirty and even that is young for me! He’s still a kid! [Laughs] But I know how it felt; I still have the idea of how I felt when I was twelve. When talking to really old people, if they really reveal themselves, they still say: “Don’t think it’s different.” You feel differently or look differently at things but that sort of insecurity that you have in you stays until your last breath.

The mythology of the mirror as being a door to other worlds or dimensions has often been used in literature and art in general – I’m thinking of the sequel to Alice In Wonderland, Through The Looking-Glass. Since a mirror reflects our image, would you say that it symbolizes the imagination or a certain potential that we’re all hiding behind our own appearance?

Yeah, it always reveals a different world. This was my approach to it. No matter if you look into a mirror and see yourself, or just the room, you will never touch it, you will never get there. It represents so many things which are sort of obvious but still untouchable and I like that.

« Many people think that we’re just dealing with dragons: we have like, I don’t know, maybe five dragons in songs, at the highest, and these dragons are never dragons, at no point. »

Your music in Blind Guardian has always been about fantasy stories, but how much of real life experiences are there in these tales and myths you’re writing about?

That’s very difficult to say because I don’t know if it’s necessary to put that in percent or whatever, because I think it’s more important what the listener interprets out of it or in which direction he’s going to relate the whole thing. There are certainly strong facts and impacts of reality involved but I don’t want to spoil the listener’s idea of a certain image by telling what is reality based. We’re still a Tolkien band: we have like twenty songs related to Tolkien, which is a lot, but considering the one hundred songs that we have, it’s still just the fifth but still we’re a Tolkien band… And many people think that we’re just dealing with dragons: we have like, I don’t know, maybe five dragons in songs, at the highest, and these dragons are never dragons, at no point. In these cases, it’s obvious that they’re not dragons but people still relate to it as dragons so what can I do? There’s a dragon on the cover, yes, and this is a dragon but a dragon stands for something, usually. I like to tell stories. I like to put my spirit into the stories, that’s more important. Like when I’m singing about Game Of Thrones by George RR Martin in “A Voice In The Dark” for example, it is my passion for a certain character in a certain situation that motivated me to something. And I like to deliver this more than telling people what they exactly have to think about when reading Blind Guardian lyric. I think a philosophical and ideological guideline wouldn’t be a very wise thing to do.

There’s a song called “At The Edge Of Time”, is there a link between this song and the previous album actually called At The Edge Of Time?

Yeah but that was just to close the circle. There’s a line on “And The Story Ends” which is “at the edge of time” and when we did the At The Edge Of Time album, I wasn’t aware of that. The fans told me: “You know, there’s that line in ‘And The Story Ends’! Etc.” I was like: “Ah ok! I forgot about it!” [Laughs] But when we were working on the concept, I’ve added that particular part in the story because it really fits there. I just got back to that point and I figured out: “Ok, I have a line ‘at the edge of time’, I have an album called At The Edge Of Time, so it’s natural now to have a song called ‘At The Edge Of Time’.” And it fitted very well because there’s a superior god-like aliens in this world, and they were forced to leave the world because of philosophical and ideological changes in this world and they had to keep themselves hidden behind the wall, and that was at the edge of time. So time is somehow protecting them at her edges so they can stay invisible and return later on, which is one of the other ideas in the concept.

Between At The Edge Of Time and this new album you went through your entire catalogue to make a best of record. Did that actually inspire you in one way or another in the making of Beyond The Red Mirror?

Not me. Apart from the lyrical issue, which is a sort of coincidence. Maybe it’s related, maybe it’s not, I can’t even say. But it had an influence on André’s part of the songwriting. Especially in the beginning, he was motivated by the shows we just did at that point, so he had the energy and the first songs that came out, like “Ashes Of Eternity”, were still carrying that vivid intention that you deliver in a live show. And at the same time, he was pretty much influenced by the remixing and stuff that we did during the Traveler’s Guide To Space And Time. So yeah, for him the sort of revisiting had a big share on his songwriting.

Now the question about the orchestral album, because every time we meet with you or your band mates, we ask you the same question: what about the orchestral album?!

[Laughs] Yeah, we’re getting closer! We’ve finished seven songs with the orchestras already. I mean, that’s probably the most important point. We have to come back and accomplish three more recordings but, since the songs are there, it’s the work of one day, to find the right orchestra and record the three songs. Then I have to do the singing. This is going to happen in 2015. The problem is that, at the very beginning of the year, in February, we have a period of six weeks where I’m not exhausted due to live performances but when we’re back from the European part of the tour then it might become complicated for me. I’ll have to see in which condition I am. The idea is to do the rest of the vocals in July and August 2015, and then we’ll be ready with the album at the end of 2015.

Good news! So now we can stop asking the question!

[Laughs] Maybe, except if I’m exhausted, it might take longer than expected! And we have to do the mixing. The release is clearly set for 2016.

Last time we spoke with you, that was for the best of Memories From A Time To Come and you told us about your past repertoire that “even though these are documents of the past, they give a preview of Blind Guardian’s future as well.” So what kind of future do you see for Blind Guardian?

I don’t think that we will keep on doing orchestral music. That will be a part of Blind Guardian but it won‘t be the essential element. It will certainly be on the orchestra recording, obviously [chuckles] but I think we somehow finished this period with the album. So whatever lies beyond that album will have a connection to the past albums, but certainly we’ll reveal a different face. We’re a little like Doctor Who from time to time [laughs]. We need to do that. Whenever we do an album, I have no idea where it’s going. And even if there are discussions and I have in my imagination in which directions the songwriting could go, it goes in completely different directions. Once you have that little piece of music, you have to live with it. If you say: “Well, these 32 bars are good, this is a part of the song.” And it has an influence on the songwriting, more than any of your ideas that you’ve had before.

Interview conducted 1st, december 2014 by Tiphaine Lombardelli.
Retranscription, traduction, introduction and questions: Nicolas Gricourt.
Promo Pics: Hans-Martin Issler .

Blind Guardian official website: www.blind-guardian.com.

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