Some bands have stars, Unisonic have a team

With their latest album, Light Of Dawn, Unisonic have proven that music is a bit like soccer, and that what matters most is teamwork. When a crucial member of the team has to remain on the substitutes’ bench, he has to be able to trust his colleagues to do the job and score without him. That’s precisely what Unisonic did when their star guitarist Kai Hansen became unavailable. Bassist and producer Dennis Ward got his hands dirty, and the end result is an album that not only meets expectations, but also appears coherent with what the band offered on their self-titled album. Michael Kiske himself was surprised “that Dennis, in a very fresh way, wrote songs like “Your Time Has Come”. That’s a classic Helloween song. » Teamwork is what’s driving Unisonic – a band the former pumpkin-man considers to be “very different from everything else”, with “real chemistry”, and which he compares to what he experienced with Helloween in the first few years.

The singer hasn’t shown such enthusiasm in the past twenty years, especially for a band where he embraces metal fully. For metal is a genre with which he’s had a complicated love/hate relationship in the past, and in the following interview, he explains the complex nuances that underline it. Dennis Ward, who’s the real revelation of this album despite being a veteran, was also part of the interview. The two men talked about this new album, the way they dealt with Hansen’s absence from the writing process, their vision of what a producer should be, and much more. A very generous conversation, which reveals the camaraderie between two musicians on the same wavelength.

« You have to do what you believe in […] You cannot expect it to be successful: if people don’t like it, that’s the way it is. »

Radio Metal: The first Unisonic album was warmly welcomed by critics and fans alike. Were you surprised? What according to you made this first album such a success?

Dennis Ward (bass): That it was so well accepted! (Laughs) Yes, we were surprised. We were scared to death, I think, as any new band or anyone doing a new thing. You can feel good about doing it, but you’re still going: “What will happen? What will they think?” There was a lot of conflict of interests to fans, maybe, because they wanted this, and we did that – or the other way around. So it was a bit scary.

Michael Kiske (vocals): I don’t worry!

Dennis: He doesn’t worry at all! Honestly, he doesn’t, but I worry to death. I’m a worry-whore. It turned out great, we had great reviews, great responses. Our festivals went really well. The whole live side of it was better than I ever imagined, which led us to making the second record. All in all, it was a great start.

Michael: I always like to believe that, if something’s meant to be, it just makes its way. You don’t have to worry. That’s how this feels like. When you’re on stage, there either is something going on between you or the audience, or not. You can’t fake it, it happens or it doesn’t. So far I think it happens, it has the spirit.

Michael, you said in the past that after a while you tend to distance yourself slightly from your albums and start to see all the faults. So what faults do you see now on the first Unisonic album?

Michael: The vocals! The vocals are better now, I think. After such a long break, you have to get back into the vocal thing. Not only technically, you know? There’s also that, relearning how to do things, especially live, and stuff like that. But also emotionally. I’m just a lot more free and happy now. I enjoy it a lot more. There was a bit of pressure, of course, but that’s normal. I think you can hear that. You could already hear that on the last Place Vendome, I think.

Dennis: When you make a record, when it’s over, there’s always stuff you criticize. Any artist that listens to his record three years later and says: “That was great, I’m the greatest” is probably full of shit and lying to himself. There’s always that strive to do more and better. There’s always gonna be criticism. Self-criticism is the best. I will criticize myself and the stuff I’ve done until I die.

Michael: That’s normal. But when you’re in the making of a record, you’re sometimes way too focused, and you’re overly critical. When the record is done and you haven’t listened to it for maybe two or three weeks, I usually think: “It’s good, it’s better than I thought!” But then, two or three years pass by, and you’ve changed a little bit, so you see things differently.

You did many shows in support of the first Unisonic album. It seems that you didn’t do this kind of touring in a very long time, Michael – and I know that at some point you hated touring. How did that change? Did you find pleasure again in touring?

Michael: I didn’t hate touring, I hated the whole thing! I was fed up with everything, I was just disappointed. I had bad experiences for a number of years, and it was getting worse and worse. Helloween started extremely cool. The first number of years were just great, there was absolutely nothing bad about it. It was perfect in that way everybody dreams things will happen. That makes it especially painful when suddenly, because one person leaves, the whole chemistry changes. Things just don’t feel right anymore. That was one of the things. I have always been the type of musician who believes that you have to do what you believe in, even if it’s not commercial or not what the market that you’ve built expects from you. If that’s what you wanna do, you gotta do it. You cannot expect it to be successful: if people don’t like it, that’s the way it is. That’s what you have to understand, but that’s what you have to do. I did that when I did the solo records, and certain reactions just pissed me off. That’s not a way to treat music. You don’t have to like it, and it would have been stupid of me to try and sell it like Helloween, because I was just a singer. I wasn’t that band. All that made me really fed up with it. I had long fights over the Internet with people, because I disagreed with certain attitudes. That’s when I shooed everything out. Then I eased down, years went by, and after a while, I got into something. Place Vendome came up, I got to know this guy [Dennis], and it was a good, creative flow. I just needed some time. And then after a while, I was ready for it. I said yes to Unisonic.

Dennis: You took my hand! (Laughs)

Michael: One of the most important things for me was to get to meet audiences and fans again. Also, doing interviews, talking to people… That made me see I was kind of over-dramatizing things. When I started to go on tour again with Avantasia in 2011, it was a big healer somehow. I didn’t know what to expect, and it was such a positive experience. I was so happy, it was a huge relief. Now I really enjoy it again. But if you’d asked me that ten years ago, I would have said: “Never again!” But that’s life, you know.

« I think it took some pressure off Kai, too, to see that it’s not essential for him to write the songs. He too thinks this album is better than the first one! »

Between the first and second album, each musician in the band went and did various projects and bands. Do you think you all came back to Unisonic with a fresh perspective and state of mind thanks to that?

Dennis: I would like to think we’re professional enough to do that anyway. Having other projects is also our way of life, we do other things. If you want to do something like this successfully, you have to do it like that. You have to know about it, be aware of it, and motivate yourself. You can’t expect somebody to come and say nice, pretty words to you to motivate you.

Michael: To me, Unisonic is very different from anything else. Like I said before, there’s this kind of chemistry there. Place Vendome is a nice side-project that just kind of lingers on. It doesn’t mean much to me, although it has nice tunes. But here, when we get together, even in the rehearsal room, I enjoy it. It’s just fun. That’s something you cannot make, and it has nothing to do with being professional. It has to do with the chemistry. The professionalism has to be there to make it work. I experienced something like that with Helloween in the first few years. It was just working. There was nothing we touched that didn’t work out. It’s beautiful. If you once experience that, you know you cannot make success. You can just hope for people to come together to create something that’s bigger than you. And I think we have that with Unisonic. The spirit is there – at least I think it’s there. If that goes away, I don’t think it will be the same.

Dennis: It’s important to hold on to it, it really is.

Michael: Good things seem to run on themselves a little bit.

Dennis: Absolutely. I agree very much.

Earlier this year we talked with Kai Hansen, and he told us that he didn’t write any songs for the new Unisonic album. He actually said: “Dennis did a hell of a job writing songs very much in the vein of what it should be”. So, Dennis, did you feel pressure having the album resting on your shoulders, with no contribution from Kai Hansen?

Dennis: No, but you know, he did contribute in any case with arrangements and spontaneous ideas. We’re grateful for that, because his ideas are usually very, very good, and really on the point. Pressure is always there, even if I do one song. Pressure is part of it. But I use pressure as a good balance to keep my head focused and not get lazy. If I didn’t have a certain amount of pressure, I don’t think I’d do a good job. I don’t mind pressure, as long as it’s a creative and useful pressure.

Michael: I can’t deal with pressure. I always set myself under pressure enough. I always want to be as good as possible, but if anyone sets me under pressure, I’m worse. I can’t stand pressure from others, I do it enough myself. Dennis actually sent me an e-mail to tell me what he just said: “It’s interesting to see what you’re capable of doing with a little bit of pressure”. Remember that? Besides mixing the album, he’d already started another recording project! And he was up à 6 o’clock every day! So he was mixing the album, recording another band, and sending us feedback in the evening! So he really was working hard!

Dennis: But that was not to be expected, it just happened.

Michael: But aside from that, this album came very easily. That’s another reason I say it’s a good sign. I was a bit worried when we did the first one, because it took so long.

Dennis: The songwriting itself went very quickly.

Michael: The whole process for this record was work, sure, but it was easy, while the first one took quite long. It needed Kai to finally arrive and finish it.

Dennis: We were really unsure about the first record.

Do you think you have managed to get away from the image of “that band with the former Helloween members”?

Michael: We’ll never get away from it.

Dennis: That’s true.

Michael: Or maybe that’s wrong to say. We have to establish the brand Unisonic first. That next record will do a lot for that, because people will see it’s not just a one-off thing. It usually takes three records until you’ve established a band and people realize it’s a real thing. But Helloween is part of my history. It’s important for me to accept it and be fine with it. It’s normal, it’s how you make a name. But I think it’s important that we have enough to say as musicians. Of course, Kai will always sound like Kai, and I will always sound like me. When Kai writes a song and I sing it, it always has that vibe. But that’s not me trying to sound like Helloween. That’s just us, it’s just the way we sound. And since we’re in a band now, we thought it was cool that Dennis, in a very fresh way, wrote songs like “Your Time Has Come”. That’s a classic Helloween song, and Dennis wrote it! (Laughs) That’s so funny! When you do something like that, it has to be convincing, it has to be fresh. And since he never did anything like that before, he only wrote it based on something I had told him years before: I’m always good when it comes to epic melodies. That’s where I can shine. I don’t like machine-gun words on one tone, that’s not my cup of tea – you know, like almost rap or something. I’m more into classical melodies, like an opera singer would do. That’s more my kind of thing. And Dennis has listened to everything I ever laid vocals on.

Dennis: I actually took it upon myself to do research and study what he’s done in the last 20 years. I’ve listened to all the stuff that I believe were his best works, and I’ve made mental notes of where I thought he sounds really good. Then I tried to focus the songwriting on the melodies as well as I could.

Michael: And you did it very well.

Dennis: Kai seems to have a natural talent for it, but I had to work on it. But it paid off, because all that referencing I did stuck in my head, and I could then imagine: “What would this sound like if he did it? Oh, forget it, that won’t work!” Or I could even send him a clip and go: “What do you think, is this doable? Could you sing this?” If it didn’t work, we could change it. That was a lot of work, but as I said, it was well worth it. I’m happy it turned out this way.

Michael: He did it very well. I was surprised by that. I like to say I can sing anything; there’s nothing that I can’t sing. But there are parts that I…

Dennis: He didn’t like any of my rap parts! (Laughs)

Michael: But there are things that people enjoy more when I do them. A lot of people tried it, but not many are capable of doing it the way he did. I’m really impressed. And he’s also the producer! For a producer to be able to stick his hat into it and have results like that, it’s impressive. In addition, Kai didn’t have a lot of time – and still, it’s such a good record! On the third record, we’ll do even better. Maybe Kai will have 100% time for us.

Dennis: Maybe we’ll make it a double album! (Laughs)

Michael: There’s a lot of potential in this band.

Dennis: Absolutely. One day I’m gonna learn to play guitar! (Laughs) When I grow up!

Michael: He plays guitar very well!

« There are things I totally disagree with in the metal scene. When it comes to the satanic stuff, or the idolizing of inhumanity or brutality, I hate that shit! And I think no one should promote shit like that. […] To me, anyone who holds up these ideals is totally irresponsible, stupid, or inwardly dead. »

Kai Hansen also told us how complicated it was to be in the two bands, Gamma Ray and Unisonic, as the schedules sometimes overlap. This is why he didn’t have time to write songs for Unisonic, and partly why the latest Gamma Ray album was delayed. Aren’t you afraid of this becoming problematic for him at some point?

Michael: I don’t think it could be more problematic than this time!

Dennis: Yeah, this is pretty problematic. But in his defense, and in ours at the same time, Gamma Ray was not delayed because of Unisonic – let that be clear! (Laughs)

Michael: Actually, this album could have been done a year ago. We wanted to start last year, that was the plan! We couldn’t do it because of Gamma Ray.

Dennis: You’ve got to be true to yourself, and I’ve gotta be true to myself. I cannot just sit and wait. We couldn’t wait for Gamma Ray. If we hadn’t done it now, we probably wouldn’t have done it at all. It was important to still work, even if a very crucial member didn’t have the time. But that’s the good thing about it: we’re a multi-songwriter band. If something like that should happen again, we could still continue. Kai’s input is still very crucial and very good, even if it was minimal. We don’t want things to happen like that again, we hope we can get around it. But we have to be prepared. What if I break my arm and I can’t play bass? We still have to do the record!

Michael: I think it took some pressure off Kai, too, to see that it’s not essential for him to write the songs. He too thinks this album is better than the first one! That’s a great thing. We made the decision not to wait for Gamma Ray, because it could take forever. You know how these guys are! But I’m pretty sure if it hadn’t worked, if down the line we’d thought it wasn’t good enough, then we would have waited. But it worked, so we finished the album. That’s how you do things: you see how far you can go, and if it doesn’t work, then…

Dennis: Then you panic! (Laughs)

Dennis, you’re not just a bass player, you’re also a renowned producer. I guess it must help to have a producer in the band, but since everything is done from within the band, don’t you guys sometimes miss an outside look on your music?

Dennis: There’s yes and no to that question. My ego is too big for me to say I want somebody else to do it! Honestly, I’m not gonna lie: I would love to have an outside producer. But the producer I want to have is not just some guy that’s on my level. I want George Martin to come by and help us out! This is where it gets a little bit weird. The other side is that I have since 1994 – that’s 20 years – been producing bands that I’m in: Pink Cream or Dezperadoz, stuff like that. I’m used to it. I’ll be honest, in the beginning, it was really, really hard to gain acceptance and be respected as the producer and a musician. That being said, a band and a producer work together. The producer is basically just the guy that wraps it all up, and makes sure everybody gets to the studio on time and that things work. But the band is always the most crucial element of the production. Unless you’re a pop artist, the producer isn’t an all-saying, “do as I say or die” kind of person. It doesn’t work that way. You see that in a lot of bands these days. Things have changed. Kosta [Zafiriou, drums] is our manager, too. We’re multifunctional, and it makes things work well. If there are issues with the production, they can talk to me directly, as the bass player or as the producer. It makes it easy, sometimes. But to answer your question directly, I think none of us would have a problem if, let’s say, Bob Rock produced the record.

Michael: I’d like it better that way, to be honest with you!

Dennis: But it’s not very realistic! (Laughs)

Michael: I’ve been working all my life with outside producers, and it was mostly good. Tommy Hansen was definitely good for Helloween, because he brought in crazy ideas, and it added to the fun. The beginning of “Rise And Fall” has that 20s a capella kind of thing. Without Tommy Hansen, it wouldn’t have been there, so that was great. But for this band, I think it’s much better to have a band member producing it. It’s more a family. Dennis knows us, so it’s not a stranger coming in, making himself an idea of who is what. It can be very problematic. I’ve also had bad experiences with producers. For instance, when he did the Pink Bubbles album, Chris Tsangarides told me one of the worst possible things. He came to me and said: “I want to make you sing”. I was like: “I don’t need you to make me sing! I know what I’m doing!” That’s the wrong approach. A good producer doesn’t give you that feeling. He does the opposite: he gives you the feeling that he trusts you, and that he thinks you can do it.

Dennis: The producer’s job is to see what he’s got on the table and get the best out of it. He has to look for the stronger parts of the musicians or the band and bring that out, and take away the weaknesses. He’s not here to change or convert the musicians. He should not try to make a singer sound like something he wants to hear. That’s a big mistake.

Michael: A lot of producers do that. Having Dennis in the band as a songwriter, bass player and producer… We know each other. He can tell me what he feels.

Dennis: We can be honest to each other, that’s true.

Michael: That’s just way better.

Dennis: It’s a big plus, it really is.

Michael: I’ve even known producers who split up the band, going to the singer and saying: “Your songs are way better than theirs!” Honestly, I’ve experienced that! And he does the same to everybody else, so everybody loves him, he has a good position, and the musicians hate each other!

Dennis: What the hell is that?!

Michael: There’s childish shit going on with producers sometimes. There have been bands breaking apart because of that. It doesn’t happen if you have your guy in the band.

Dennis: By the way… (sotto voce) You write the best songs! (Laughs)

Michael: (laughs) I’m the best singer in the band!

Dennis: You’re the best singer, absolutely!

« I love a huge part of the scene. The fans are sweet, they’re not evil at all! They’re totally harmless and passionate. I love that! »

Michael, this second album still sounds pretty diverse, but also more metal than the first one. You’ve had a pretty complex relationship with metal over the years. So do you find more pleasure singing metal now?

Michael: To be honest, a lot of things I’ve said have been twisted around. People took it the way they wanted to see it. I never hated my Helloween past – the good years, I mean. I did it for the love of the music. I grew up with Maiden, Priest, Queensrÿche, Metallica, Black Sabbath; so there’s a love relationship with that type of music. Then I went through these negative experiences, and I just got bullshit from people. I don’t need to be Mr Nice Guy all the time, I don’t care. If I’m pissed off, I say so. I’ve always been the guy who speaks his mind. There are things I totally disagree with in the metal scene. When it comes to the satanic stuff, or the idolizing of inhumanity or brutality, I hate that shit! And I think no one should promote shit like that. You don’t want to live in a world like that. We all want to laugh and be loved, we want friends that we can trust. Regardless of religion, that’s who we are as humans. To me, anyone who holds up these ideals is totally irresponsible, stupid, or inwardly dead. I don’t know, it’s probably a mixture of everything. So I’ve always been against it – but that’s not all. I love a huge part of the scene. The fans are sweet, they’re not evil at all! They’re totally harmless and passionate. I love that! The same goes with interviews: I like most of the people we talk to. We’re on the same kind of page and have the same musical tastes. Those are my people. But there will always be a hate/love situation, because there’s stuff I totally disagree with, and that will never change. I have expressed myself about it, especially in Germany, and some people hate me for that. I don’t care. It actually did me good, because many people understood. But there are some people that will twist around whatever you say and make something out of it. I never hated music with heavy guitars, or anything like that. It was a mixture of bad experiences and disagreement with certain things that are happening in the scene.

You have often claimed that you would never sing speed metal again, with double bass, etc. But songs like “Your Time Has Come” and “For The Kingdom” are the closest you’ve ever been to singing speed metal again in one of your own bands…

Michael: I did that with Avantasia. I never said I wouldn’t sing it, I just wouldn’t write it. That’s just not my songwriting. I never wrote anything like that. The stuff I’m writing sounds different. If Dennis hadn’t written those songs, they wouldn’t be on the album. But I don’t mind singing them. Toby [Sammet] is actually the one thanks to whom I’m doing this. He was the one who wrote that stuff for me. And he’s such a nice person – he’s just a great guy. I liked him from the first moment on. He called me up when he was doing the first Avantasia record. That’s why I did it. I was still in the phase where I was totally against this scene and didn’t want to have anything to do with it. It was just his personality. I said yes just because of him, but I said he had to call me “Ernie” on the record. That’s how it came to be. Now I think it’s stupid, I find it very funny. But it’s just the way I was in those days. The speed of a song doesn’t make a song evil or anything. It’s about the message. I don’t think I’ve ever done anything evil, my type of vocals is not like that. It’s just not the person that I am, and Toby is not at all like that, either. But I would never write it, I need a band to do it. In Unisonic, it just happened.

Dennis: None of us has any interest in that, either!

The EP and the first single are called “For The Kingdom”. Is this what you’re aiming at with Unisonic, building a new musical kingdom?

Dennis: That’s a good description! (Laughs)

Michael: “Kingdom” is a bit too much, but you want to build your little world.

Dennis: We’re talking about our world in general. The kingdom is our world, and we’re doing this for the kingdom – our world.

Michael: Something I like to point out is how much I like people. Most people are nice. I believe in humanity. Even though we’re living in difficult times, even though there’s corruption and evil going on, I do believe in humanity. I think, when things get worse and we suffer, we see it’s not working and we learn.

Dennis: I think a big part of this band is a very positive thinking, and the belief that, beside all the shit, there is goodness, and it can conquer all. The message in that song, and in our music in general, is that we believe. We actually believe in this shit.

Michael: Anybody can see what’s wrong in the world, and it’s easy to complain about it. It’s easy to be pissed about everything, but trying to make a difference and to have some good ideas requires more strength. It’s much easier to be frustrated about something, because you’ve basically given up. In an interview we did in Spain yesterday, we said that the mystery of our existence, the mystery of freedom, is deciding between good and evil, light and darkness. The main issue in our lives is that, whatever happens to us, we can make it good or bad. When a woman gets raped, for instance, it’s a horrible experience, and it’s completely understandable that she should be traumatized. But if the result is that she can never love again, then whoever did this to her would have destroyed her. You have to work on it and overcome the pain. It’s never gonna be undone, but evil people should never make us lose our trust or make us evil. We should never become assholes because we’ve experienced negative things, because that’s when evil wins. Whatever we go through in life, especially negative experiences, the important thing is what we make with it. You can go through a negative experience and make something good out of it. We all have to do that individually in our lives.

Interview conducted face to face on May, 28th 2014 by Saff’.
Transcription : Saff’.
Introduction and questions : Spaceman.
Photos : Erik Weiss, Blaustall (studio) and Nicolas Gricourt (live at Hellfest 2012).

Unisonic official website : www.unisonic.org/

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