Gamma Ray: a fireproof Heavy Metal empire

What album could possibly be more metal than one directly nurtured into the flames of Hell? With all due respect to Satan worshippers – sincere or fake – this is exactly what German heavy/speed band Gamma Ray managed to do last year with their album “Empire Of The Undead” set for a 28 March release. “Dear Kai, please call back immediately, the studio is burning and this is no fucking joke!”, this is the text message lead singer Kai Hansen received in his hotel room in South America, while the majority of their album had just been recorded at Hammer Studios in Hamburg. Besides its quality of which they can be proud, this is an album that will certainly remain a vivid memory for all band members.

In the following interview, Kai Hansen himself tells us all about the conception of Empire Of the Undead, the fire in the studios and how they managed to save their music. This was also the occasion for us to get more information concerning the departure of drummer Dan Zimmerman, along with some news from Unisonic – his second band with Michael Kiske, past bandmate from Helloween – which is currently working on its second album. We also used this opportunity to ask him about some plagiarism accusations flowing over the internet concerning a few Gamma Ray songs.

About the fire at Hammer Studios : « When I heard about that […] I just sat there for half an hour, doing nothing, just staring at the window and at the wall. »

Radio Metal: The songs « Empire Of The Undead » and « Master Of Confusion » were both released in march 2013 as part of the Master Of Confusion compilation. How come it took you a whole year to finalise and release the album? Does this have anything to do with Hammer Studio being destroyed by a fire?

Kai Hansen (vocals/guitar): No, not only. When we started working on this album we had the tour coming up together with Helloween and before I was pretty busy with Unisonic so I didn’t have any time to really get into the Gamma Ray work. So when we actually started it was already pretty late in time when we went on tour with Helloween. So the only choice we had was to start up and release [an EP], to not go on tour naked for the first part of the tour with Helloween. And when we had done this tour, which was pretty long actually, we continued working on the final album and still, we had the second part of the Helloween and Gamma Ray tour coming up, in South America and so on. So we couldn’t manage to finalise the album by then because it was just too short, and we were still pretty much missing three songs to finalise the album. Then when we went on tour with Helloween to South America that was the time when the fire struck our studio, and started. So when we came back, we had no more studio and we still had three songs missing for the album. And the rest is history I guess, our studio companion Eike has found another studio to work with, we gave him a tip on whom he should call and we found a this studio in Hamburg to continue working. We had a rehearsal room from a band that we know that we could use and then we went to the rehearsal room to finish the three songs, composing wise. Then we went to the studio and did the rest. So, all in all everything took a long time, with breaks in between.

What were your first thoughts when you heard about the destruction of Hammer Studios?

When I heard about that, I was actually in my hotel room in South America and my mobile phone rang. I thought that was a message coming in and I looked at it and it said “Dear Kai, please call immediately, the studio is burning, this is no fucking joke.” And I just looked at the message and said “ok” and put the phone on the side and I just sat there for half an hour, doing nothing, just staring at the window and at the wall. Then I started panicking and started googling things up. I was looking for pictures and trying to call Eike to get more information on what was going on.

Do you now know how the fire happened?

No, actually there’s a rumour that some guys – because it was a big complex, and there were people dealing with old refrigerators and all kinds of shit – and somebody said that some people made a barbecue and somebody put the rest of the food into the trash can, and maybe they were still hot and so that’s what started burning. But it’s not proven and I don’t know if it really happened that way, it’s just a rumour.

Will the studio be rebuilt?

No, the whole complex was too much destroyed and the building is on the verge of collapsing, so we have to find a different space.

How did you manage to recover everything that had already been recorded?

Oh that was no problem actually, because of the digital age, I mean everything was on hard drives and Dirk had a copy, I had a copy. When Eike – who was working at that time – saw there was a fire, he just grabbed all the hard drives he could get and ran out. So that was safe. Fortunately we’re not working on 24 tracks anymore.

« For us it was sure that fire is destructive but it has a purifying effect as well, so after you’ve come to terms with it, you can start rebuilding into something new and it’s kind of a cleaning process in some way. »

Apparently everything was destroyed except the almost finished album tapes. I guess the fact it resisted to a fire makes it quite a special record in the end, doesn’t it?

It’s definitely a record that will forever be in our minds as something special, that’s for sure. I mean, you know the whole process of making it and the fire in between… Plus, I think it’s a very good record beyond that. And this album definitely is something special, yeah.

In the video for Hellbent, you included some video footage of the burnt studio. Did you want to show how attached to this place you felt?

Well, maybe… it was part of it, yeah. You know it was just an idea, we had planned to go there anyhow and then the label said “well, we have a cameraman here and a film team, can we join you to use it as footage?” and we said “Ok, that’s no problem”. But it was the first time I actually saw the place after the fire and it was pretty touching, yeah.

With Hellbent, did you want to show that giving up after such an incident is completely out of the question for you guys?

Well giving up is always out of the question. You know, I don’t think that with the video we wanted to show people we didn’t want to give up, but maybe it came along with it as message. For us it was sure that fire is destructive but it has a purifying effect as well, so after you’ve come to terms with it, you can start rebuilding into something new and it’s kind of a cleaning process in some way. So that’s how we felt.

Gamma Ray albums usually feature colourful artworks whereas this time the artwork is quite sober. Did you want kind of a black album or white album effect?

Yeah, that’s exactly what it is; it’s our white album, or our black album, or both at the same time, as you want it, because there are different versions. [Laughs] Hum, yeah, it came up to me as I was standing in front of music store and was looking at the CDs on a shelve of heavy metal. And it was like every CD looked the same, and on such a small format as a CD, I was kind of a bit sick and tired of the colourful little pictures. Even though I like them in general, but at that moment I was like “Damn, let’s do something different, something plain, and simple and like BAM, something that jumps in your face” and that’s how we ended up with having this.

Hellbent sounds like a celebration for metal, just like « To The Metal! » on the previous record. Is this some sort of follow up, being like the 2014 Gamma Ray metal hymn?

If you want, you can see it that way, sure, of course! [Laughs] You know, we have always had this kind of thing that we celebrate the music we like and we love and music that keeps us going on. For instance without heavy metal, many times in my life I would have had a very hard time pursuing certain things that surround me. But music always helps me and I think I’m not the only one. I think that’s true for many many people. So even if the whole world around us – because it’s in the lyrics, you know – explodes or falls to pieces, still, as long as you hear your music, you don’t give a fuck, you don’t care, you don’t mind. You can actually be strong enough to survive.

« Without heavy metal, many times in my life I would have had a very hard time pursuing certain things that surround me. But music always helps me and I think I’m not the only one. I think that’s true for many many people. »

The album starts with “Avalon”, an epic 9 minutes song. This is always an audacious choice to make. Could this be a wink at Land Of The Free, your most praised album, and the opening song “Rebellion In Dreamland”?

Well sure, it wasn’t our purpose to do that, because you cannot do these things on purpose [Laughs] it never works. But it just happened to be that way and when we had to make a choice for the album track listing, we were not sure because originally we had the idea of starting the album with “Hellbent”, just like the usual thrashy song in the beginning of an album. But then again, one morning I woke up and I had dreamt about it and I was sure… I don’t know, for some reason I was sure it would be good to start the album with “Avalon” and put that on place one. And then I thought of Land Of The Free because it was “Rebellion”, a similar song, that was in the first place and so I liked the idea of having something similar this time as well.

« Time For Deliverance » sounds a lot like something Queen could have written, with a typical vocal melody, background vocals and arrangements. Was it a deliberate influence?

Oh well definitely, I have always loved Queen and everything they have done. It’s a great great great band and especially Freddy Mercury, what a vocalist! I mean, absolutely. And the thing is that the song is written by Dirk and when he played it to me, I was just like “Fuck man, this is so much like a Queen song!” and then of course, when we continued working, I always kept that kind of vision in mind that it should have this grandeur like a Queen song.

The rock n’ roll riff during the solo in “Avalon” reminds a lot the main riff in « Stone Cold Crazy » by Queen, is there also any link?

If it’s that way, it’s not on purpose. I think it’s more like it’s just a rock ‘n roll lick. But I know what you mean, yeah, I know what you mean, but that was not planned or so. We just jammed and somebody came up with this riffing and we just said “yeah, that’s cool, that’s cool for a solo.”

The album is pretty diverse, it features an epic song, some thrash / speed metal tunes, some rather rock n’ roll tracks and a ballad. Do you think this album represents all of Gamma Ray musical sides?

I think it’s a good representative of showing what we can do or what we like to do in various ranges. I like albums that have kind of flexibility in terms of not doing “song A” ten times but rather go for songs A, B, C, D and so on. I think we’ve done a good job in creating a good variety but still not sounding like a compilation.

The song “I Will Return” sounds like it’s dedicated to the movie Terminator. Can you tell us more about that?

[Laughs] No, not really, that was more of a joke. Because Henjo wrote the song “I Will Return” and suddenly, I don’t know, I said “it needs some kind of intro or something like that” and then… In my mind “I Will Return” is like when Arnold Schwarzenegger would say “I’ll be back” and so I said “come on, let’s get that out from YouTube or something, you know, just this little sentence and put this in front” because it’s like the wink of an eye.

About Gamma Ray being accused of plagiarism : « You know, you can’t reinvent the wheel: you have twelve chords, put three together and I tell you where you stole it from. »

You have co-produced every single Gamma Ray album together with Dirk Schlächter since Insanity And Genius. But this time Eike Freese was also part of the process at the mixing desk…

No, I mean it’s always very hard to put this in terms. Dirk and I we just shared the production process this time because Eike mixed the whole thing. He didn’t produce it that way, he produced it in terms of mixed sounds but the production itself (that means the recording and the producing) doesn’t mean making sound. Producing can mean “make sounds” but it has to do with… Like giving the music a certain frame, and having a vision of how it should sound, setting sounds, having ideas for all the dots, for melodies, for arrangements and sounds, that’s producing. In general that’s done by Dirk and me, but I think this time I really took the most impact on the sound or on the way that this album was kind of proceeding.

After 15 years within Gamma Ray, Dan Zimmerman left the band in 2012. He has also apparently stopped music altogether, according to Chris Bay from Freedom Call. Were you surprised by his decision?

In some way, yes. I mean we could all feel that he was not so much with his whole heart in terms of touring, playing, being there and coming to Hamburg for rehearsals and so on. Everybody could feel that but I was kind of in some way shocked when he said to me “well, I’m going to leave, I’m really gonna cut it now.”

Released in 2011, your EP Skeletons And Majesties featured a karaoke version of the song « Rebelllion In Dreamland » with which you asked the fans to record themselves singing the song and send the result to the band. The new version of the song with the fans’ choir was supposed to appear on the next Gamma Ray album. What can you tell us about this project, are we going to hear the result some day?

Yeah, also still it took us a very long time to determine who the best performers were. I think we might release the best performances later on, if the persons agree with it. It’ll be on our website for download.

It was announced last month that you began working on the next Unisonic record. What can you tell us about it? How would you compare it to the first one?

It’s funny because this time I didn’t write any songs because first I didn’t have any time. Fortunately, the rest of the guys did a great job in coming up with good material. Especially Dennis, he did a hell of a job writing songs very much in the vein of what it should be. There’s a lot of speed on this album actually, it’s much faster than the first album. I think it’s even more metal and it’s got some great songs and good variety.

Being in two main bands, Gamma Ray and Unisonic, is I guess twice as much work. How do you organise all that?

I don’t know! [Laughs] I try to live fully somehow. I mean sometimes it’s insane but so far I’m ok with it. I just try… we always have to watch our timing.

How do decide which riff should go for which band?

Hum, it’s… I don’t know I don’t even have to think about it. You know, normally when I would write songs, I have an instant feel for which feels right for which band or for which performer and so on.

Michael Kiske said that the classic Helloween line-up never really had a chance to say everything it had to say artistically and that it was very sad. Do you feel that way as well?

Actually I have never thought about it so much, but I don’t know, I really can’t say. Maybe we could have done even more later on, but I don’t think about that too much [laughs] you know? Just play music, and music you play is just a momentary snapshot of your abilities and your will of what you want to do. So I don’t know what could have been possible later on and I don’t think we have missed anything. I think that at the time, when we had this lineup, we did the best we could do and I think the success proves us right in some way.

On YouTube, there’s a video comparing parts of your songs to other artists’ songs that sound very similar to yours. For example « The Rime Of The Ancient Mariner » and « The Clairvoyant » by Iron Maiden were compared to your song « Opportunity ». What would you say to the people calling that plagiarism?

Well I’d say if they want to compare, let them do it. I know that there are similarities, especially in this song. It was a bass riff Dirk has always played and I said “that’s nice, we should put it in a song” and then we thought “oh fuck, it’s very similar to Maiden’s thing there” but then we said “hey, come on, fuck it.” I mean, you know, if you look back at old times of Elvis Presley and Chuck Berry and all those guys, every song had three chords, and these three chords were always the same. Sometimes they were this way around, sometimes that way around, but it was always the same scheme and it sounded similar. I mean if you take “Hound Dog” and compare it to “Lucille” or whatever it’s all the same, but it gives a different approach depending on who’s singing it and why he’s singing it and how he’s playing it. So I never minded doing a thing that is similar or is the same just because music is reproduction as well. You know, you can’t reinvent the wheel: you have twelve chords, put three together and I tell you where you stole it from. You can do it even more, or you can set boundaries very short. We are always playing things very naively. If we liked something, we just did it. Sure, you can always expect to get punished by people from the internet saying “AH! I’ve heard that before, you stole that from here or from there” but hey, we don’t give a fuck.

Interview conducted by phone on March, 12th 2014 by Metal’O Phil.
Transcription : Natacha.
Introduction and questions : Spaceman.

Gamma Ray official website: www.gammaray.org

Album Empire Of The Undead, out since March, 28th 2014 via EarMusic.

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