Helloween: always a sinful pumpkin

Sascha Gerstner is a common-sense man: « there are just too many heavy metal bands, everybody thinks he is a guitar player, everybody thinks he is a producer, everybody thinks he is a rock star.” That’s the truth and we needed someone to tell it. Not a shady -quote unquote- journalist like me, no, but a good guy who knows what he talks about. And, honestly,  Sascha Gerstner- Helloween’s current guitar player- one of the fathers of the genre who influenced so many  (maybe too?) bands, is the right man for the job!

Sascha is actually more than realistic whether it be about the profusion of heavy/ speed metal bands – which does more harm than good to this style of music- or the so-called open-mindedness of the heavy metalheads. Here comes a musician who presents a real out of step speech with what his fellow musicians usually say. This is the proof that it was a judicious choice to take Sascha as a successor to Roland Grapow in 2001, since Helloween is also an out of step band in the heavy/speed metal world.

By the way, in the following interview, Sascha is full of praise for the pumpkin’s current line up, according to him, Michael Weikath (guitar) and Andi Deris (singer) see it as “the most stable line-up they ever have”. Besides, he reminisces his early beginning with the band and the poor state in which he found it when he arrived.

A really interesting interview- thanks to its honesty-  which also reveals many details about the new album,  7 Sinners, and which comes back to the way Unarmed was welcomed, a project that grown to celebrate the 25th Anniversary of the band and which saw the classics of the latter giving itself original re-interpretations to say the least.

« I don’t think that heavy metal fans are open-minded.« 

Radio Metal : Earlier, this year you have released Unarmed as a celebration of Helloween’s 25th anniversary. It is definitely an album that has to be taken with an open-mind. Consequently it ended up diving the fans’s opinion. Is it something you had expected?

Sascha Gerstner (guitar) : As a heavy metal musician I would say yes but on the other hand, we were hoping that people know that we tend to do experiments some times, that they are open minded enough to get the idea behind it. So it was not like saying “oh we are doing another studio record, that’s the way we want to make music”, that’s not the case. We were trying to explain that this is a kind of a project we wanted to do for a special thing, for the 25 years anniversary. We wanted to do something that no one else has done before and that’s what we did. I understand some people don’t get it, I totally understand. However, I didn’t understand since we were explaining what it was meant to be that they didn’t get it. We knew ourselves that we wanted to go back to the studio and doing another killer heavy metal studio album. We knew it and we hoped that the fans did know it as well but, they didn’t so. I think it is not a bad thing that it’s dividing the fans, I think it is a good thing actually.

Don’t you think that sometimes heavy metal fans call themselves open-minded just because they also listen to death metal? If one heavy metal band explores extra metal territories it gets usually and almost systematically, criticized.

I don’t think that heavy metal fans are open-minded. It doesn’t mean that they are dumb, that’s not what I’m saying. I think that heavy metal is a lifestyle and I understand if people are into this lifestyle very much, I totally understand that. The band Helloween doesn’t have only the typical heavy metal fans, we have some different people, coming from totally different kind of music. I don’t think heavy metal fans are open-minded but they don’t have to! If you are a heavy metal fan you are a heavy metal fan, you are not a pop fan. Personally as an artist, I am very open-minded. I always try to find things to give me an impact to express myself in a new way so I have a totally different thinking about that. But as a fan I understand totally if you don’t want to listen to pop music, if you want to live in a heavy metal lifestyle. That’s a good thing about heavy metal fans, that’s what I like about them, they keep together, they speak together. It is like a big family, and I would say it is the best feeling you have in a heavy metal concert or if you go to Wacken festival. You never see that anywhere else: it is amazing how fans speak together! So, I don’t think they have to be open-minded just to be open-minded.

The new album is coming out less than a year after the release of Unarmed. After the Unarmed experience, did the band somehow feel a kind of urge to go back to the big guitar sound and do metal records?

It doesn’t feel urged; it was more a natural thing. We were on stage in USA end up 2008 and since then we did not go on stage any more we went to the studio to record the anniversary album which was a great musical experience for us but it was also a lot of hard work, it was not metal fun at all! We didn’t have guitar amplifiers cranked to eleven playing metal riffs! So it came out naturally that we wanted to do a killer metal album next. It was not a kind of reaction to the Unarmed album. We could have done no Unarmed album and then would have done this record maybe as well. If you remember Gambling With The Devil, for example, it is a fast, hard and heavy metal album as well. That is what this line-up in Helloween does, that’s the music we do. The Unarmed album is just something we wanted to do, to do something different. We could have done a whole orchestra album but everybody does it, it is not a new thing! We could have done an acoustic album, with only acoustic guitars, but that’s not a new thing! We wanted to do something special, something nobody else would have done, that’s what we did.  In a studio album that’s the style we want to do with “Seven Sinners” or with “Gambling with the Devil”… that’s the kind of music we love, the kind of music we want to play, the kind of music we want to do in the future.

About the cover artwork of the new album when we see all these sharp and armful blades on the cover, is it a way to make a contrast with the name of the Unarmed album? To show that you are now armed again?

Yes, it was exactly to show that we are armed again. As I said before, some people didn’t get the idea of the Unarmed album, we realised we must make it clear, we have to get people a sign so they understand, without any word, that it is a heavy metal album. If we would have done any other artwork, people maybe would have thought “Aah that could be another Unarmed bullshit, we don’t want to listen to that. “ It is sad that people don’t get it sometimes but we wanted to make it clear with the artwork. When you look at the artwork, when you see it, it is heavy metal outside and it is going to be heavy metal inside.

(About « Are You Metal? ») « I was even imagining someone sitting on a table with all these typical clichés: having a skull on a table, guitars in the back, sitting like in a cartoon, with his long hair, thinking if he is metal. The whole heavy metal scene tend to not listening to anything else than metal even heavy metal fans don’t listen to gothic metal. « 

Both “Gambling With The Devil” and “Keeper Of The Seven Keys – The Legacy” came out around Halloween. The new album “7 Sinners” will be out around Halloween this year. Is it something that has been planned for marketing purposes or is it just pure coincidence?

We have a circle which is always the same circle: we are going on tour, then we are writing songs, then we are doing a new record and you don’t get all of that because it is always like the same time we’re going on tour. We are going on tour in fall, in the studio in summer so naturally our albums are released in fall and, of course, it is also a little joke. However, in my opinion, there no need for releasing the album on Halloween but it is obvious that it is a good day. We could have done it one day before or one day after, it doesn’t matter! Of course it is funny to release a Helloween album on Halloween, it makes sense but it is not a marketing thing. I don’t think that we sell any more records because we releasing the album on Halloween.

7 Sinners is Helloween’s thirteenth studio album, it contains thirteen tracks. So are you superstitious?

We have this relationship to mythology and numbers and everything but there was no purpose about that. We had like eighteen tracks for the record but not all tracks were fitting into that kind of sound and concept so it was thirteen but not for special purpose.

But anyway did you have any bad luck during the recording session, any problems in the studio?

No, totally not. That’s the strange thing or even it is a good thing. I remember in the past when I joined the band there were so many things just happening in a bad way! I even heard the same thing about the past, before I joined the band. I would say that after the Legacy Tour the line-up got very stable and that’s why we were able to do the Gambling With The Devil album the way it is. Since this period things are going great! There is nothing bad happening any more.

The album is called 7 Sinners, you are five in the band, so who are the two other sinners?

It is not so spectacular; it is not a concept album. It is not like Keeper Of The Seven Keys. It came out very dumb, sitting on a table and Michael had his I-pod and his songs on it and he made this item with 7 Sinners, seven stars. Then we were talking about mythology, that you have everywhere in the whole world written the seven sins of mankind.  We thought like “five of us, the pumpkin and the keeper of the seven keys and will get the seven sinners” in connection to the 7 sins. There is no special concept behind it. It was just some ideas coming up and we picked them up.

One of the new songs is called “Are You Metal?” I am not sure if it has to be taken seriously as a celebration of the metal spirit or if it has to be taken more on the humorous side. What can you tell us about it?

Of course it doesn’t have to be taken seriously! You know us; you know how the band is in a very sarcastic and ironic way. We always express ourselves in humour. It could also be connected to the Unarmed thing: expecting something else from metal. (Laughs) So Are You Metal? I was even imagining someone sitting on a table with all these typical clichés: having a skull on a table, guitars in the back, sitting like in a cartoon, with his long hair, thinking if he is metal. The whole heavy metal scene tend to not listening to anything else than metal even heavy metal fans don’t listen to gothic metal. I don’t get it but (laughs) that’s what the song is about.

So what is according to you being metal?

I think it is a lifestyle; it is to be against anything in the system. I really can’t tell you how you should be if you want to be metal. It changed so much! When I was young there was just heavy metal, you had just thrash metal coming out but it was very new for the period. There was no gothic, there was almost no death, it was not as split up as it is right now. I really don’t get the idea behind it. For me it is just trying to be different. That’s what I would call metal: trying to find any alternative of living. That’s what I would say what is metal but everybody else has his own conclusion about that.

So, I have to ask you the question : are you metal?

In my opinion yes. I am probably more metal than most people are. (Laughs)

What makes you say that?

Because I’m trying to find any alternative I can find, even within heavy metal themes.

Do you think that a good metal head is a good sinner? Some religious organisations tend to think that metal is inevitably linked to sins.

I don’t think so. I think heavy metal is reuniting people around itself. Like I said before, if you go to Wacken Open Air you see 40 000 people being together like a big family having fun celebrating, nothing happen. If you see like the bad guys with the beer and the tattoos they don’t do anything! They look that way but they don’t do anything bad. I would say that probably you find the most sinners among those people who don’t look that way.

The song “Who is Mr Madman?” is obviously the follow-up to the song “Perfect Gentleman” because of the melody line the two songs share. So,how did the “perfect gentleman” become “Mr Madman”?

(Laughs) I got that idea because I was thinking “we have The Perfect Gentleman and people love that song” and I was thinking that it would be interesting to know, sixteen years later, where he is now. What is he doing? What does he become? That’s what happens in the intro. He was like playing with the girls and he fucked out his mind, that’s basically what happened so he ends up in a straitjacket, in a clean white room, having two sexy nurses taking care of him. That was basically the idea and he still got it. So that’s why he’s saying: wait until I get out of my straitjacket and you will see who is Mr Madman.

 » When I joined the band, that was not a band any more, they were just in a ritual trying to do music but it was not a band anymore.« 

I have read that the instruments on this album were tuned to pitch 432 instead of the usual 440 hertz. Apparently it is supposed to be more natural to the ear,to have a relaxing effect. Is this true?

Yes, it should be more natural to the ear and if you listen to the album, it does something with the energy and it pleases the ear more. It is just a physical thing. It came out when we were talking about frequencies surrounding us like there is one main key frequency holding everything together. There is a Swiss professor, an engineer, who was trying to convert this 8 Hz into musical tuning. If you multiplied it you would not end up with 440, which is the main key right now, but with 432.

That’s like the main frequency holding everything together in the universe… That’s what they say. On the other hand, 432 is what the Buddhist people used in their music for ever, it is interesting how that’s connected. Since we are interested in such things, we always were: Helloween is a positive band, we tried to find new ways of living.  We try to find how everything works together in this universe. That was one of the thing we wanted to try because we were reading about.  We thought that there were some connections to other things so why not trying it? Why do it the old way? You can’t do any harm. We did it and it really does something, I don’t know what it is but it has a different feeling. If you listen to the record it has different feelings to the other albums we did.

The first two songs on the album are quite dark. In that regard it reminds a bit of the darker direction the band took on “The Dark Ride” album but on the other side the album on a whole remains on the fun side just as Helloween has always been mostly known for. Do you think that Helloween is more about fun than darkness contrary to many metal bands?

The thing is that we don’t think about those things. People always think we do stuff on purpose, that we do music on purpose, that’s not true. We are artists and you have like two generations in this band. I’m like fifteen years younger than Michael is. I’m of course bringing a more modern style to the band and everybody has his own kind of legacy and his own kind of influence, musical life.  We don’t think about it. That’s the thing about Helloween, that’s what I always keep on saying. People think we are doing the whole stuff on purpose that’s definitely not, that’s not sitting at home saying “so now let’s do a dark album or now do this or now do that”. We are artists; we just want to make music and to do what we want to do. What we are doing with this line-up, since it’s so stable, is the music we want to do right now. All the influences mixed together up is the album. What I personally think is that, on this record, you have a very balanced mixture in comparison to the older records, you have all these influences but they are well-balanced. There is nothing sticking out totally different.

Helloween has always expressed serious and even dark themes with a positive attitude and even a sense of humour. Do you think that humour is the good way to increase awareness?

As I just said, we don’t do things on purpose. So, humour is the way we are, we just do it. There is no dark side, no sun side, that’s not what we are thinking about. We are just doing music and that the feeling we have. If you listen to our record that’s the feeling we have at this moment. So, for example after the Legacy Tour, we did Gambling With The Devil, we had totally fresh feelings, we were so excited about the line-up that we brought up this style of Helloween metal music. So we did Gambling With The Devil which was already different from all the other records before. Nevertheless we still have old influences as well because we have Marcus, we have Michael, we have Andi who were there before and they have their influences. Now you have Dani and me and we all have influences, we provide that into song writing as well. When you are listening to Helloween 2010 there is no purpose at all, nothing like “let’s do a dark album or let’s try to be very funny so that people are more interested in the band “ that is not necessary. That’s not why we started music in the first place.

So do you think you can laugh and write about any subject with Helloween?

Yes that’s what we do! That’s what I try to explain to you…There is no planning, we just do what we want to do, we just want to be musicians, we just want to play. That’s what I’m sick of, I’m sick of those kind of questions, I’m not talking about your questions but of the “you did everything on purpose, what’s with this way? What’s with that way?“ I mean no! We are just doing music. I am not asking you why are you doing interviews? Is there any purpose? Do you want to get involved to music scene? Is it the reason why you are doing interviews? That’s not what I’m asking.
I hope you love what you do. So you are interested in journalism? That’s why you are doing that? I don’t know.  Not everything is on purpose, I’m not asking you if you want to be rich as a journalist. Those kind of questions are what we get such as: “Do you make music because you want to be famous?” or “do you want to make music because you want to be on the dark side? Do you want to play death metal because you want to be on the dark side?” It doesn’t matter!
For me playing guitar was like a therapy, it was something to get out my questions and I wanted to express myself, that’s why I started music in the first place and there was no purpose. I didn’t want to be cool, I didn’t want to get rich and famous. Maybe a lot of people are that way , I would agree with you if you said that, but that’s not the way we are, that’s not the way I see the band.

That’s why the band does what it wants to do. Helloween does not stand for 25 years, every record the same shit. That’s not the way it is. Helloween is doing what Helloween does at the moment. Helloween 2005 is not Helloween 2010, we are in some kind of evolution. (Laughs)

So do you think that in the future Helloween could again take some more risks with its music like it did with albums like Chameleon, The Dark Ride? Is it something that is still possible today with Helloween?

I think so yes! It could be possible because everything is possible that’s my personal thinking about life in general: everything is possible. I wouldn’t say today “no we will never do that again!” I wouldn’t say “oh we only do Gambling With The Devil and nothing else.” That’s bull shit! Life changes, you change, you probably won’t make interviews any more in ten years maybe you’d something else, who knows? I don’t know and you don’t know that. You just know what you want to do that’s a thing! We want to play heavy metal, that’s our first thing at all. We just want to play heavy metal, we want to write music, we want to go on stage, we want to keep that lifestyle because it is a great one. I love to play in this band, I love to go on stage, I love travelling the world and I love being stressed out from the studio, everything I love. That’s my life, the one that I had chosen. I wasn’t born into this, I was working for that really hard and I’m happy that I made it and I would be happy if the band would make even more in the future. You never know what’s going to happen in the future but of course the direction we are holding right now is what we want to do, like 7 Sinners is like the Helloween 2010, that’s exactly what we are standing for.

« I think there are just too many heavy metal bands, everybody thinks he is a guitar player, everybody thinks he is a producer, everybody thinks he is a rock star. Since the whole myspace and social networks stuff, everybody thinks he is a rock star and that’s bulshit.« 

I’m asking this because it’s been a long time since Helloween has not experimented a lot on a studio album…

Well, Unarmed was an experiment right?

Yes of course, but apart from Unarmed which was kind of a calculated risk since it was a special project to celebrate the anniversary of the band, as you said earlier. Chameleon and The Dark Ride were very different for Helloween. And as a matter of fact both albums led to major line-up changes, due to tensions in the band, so is it something the band could be afraid of?

Right now? No! The band is really stable right now. I can just tell what Michael and Andi keep saying. For them, it is the most stable line-up they ever had and they hope to move on with Dani and me for, hopefully, the next ten or fifteen years or how ever how long this journey with Helloween may be.

I think from the past, the relationship between all band members was not good at all from the beginning. Of course they created something, of course if you join the band there is something exciting about it and you have a good feeling but it is not as if Weiki was best friend with Roland for example or with Uli from the beginning that’s not the way it happened. When I joined the band, it was a totally different thing. I was hanging out with Michael for four weeks doing nothing, we didn’t play guitar at all. We were just hanging out, watching Shreck on DVD and we just had a good time, we wanted to know each other. It is a totally different thing with the whole line up. When we are going on tour, we are sitting in the tour bus together, we talk about things, we have the same interests. We finally found ourselves as individuals even though everyone is different. I am totally different than Andi and he is totally different than Marcus and Marcus is totally different than Weiki but we have the same kind of interests. That’s where it starts. We respect each other, we like each other, we found a way to make good music. It’s working out really good. There is a great relationship between Michael and I. There is no jealousy or whatever, there is no need for that because we are adults, we are not kids any more. Andi is a great songwriter so you’ve got to respect that. There is no bad feelings left in that line-up so probably we’ll move on from year to year. I don’t think that we have to do something that will lead into a split of the band.

So you feel confident about the longevity of this line-up?

Totally! Since the Legacy Tour we felt that we get along very well and with Dani as well. I had to find my place in the band. When I joined the band, that was not a band any more, they were just in a ritual trying to do music but it was not a band anymore. There was not a fixed drummer. I was new and it takes some time. That was what people didn’t get! You can’t be best friends from the beginning! It is a growing thing. We have been on tour and we have been together for so long! We had to know each other and now we do know each other even musical wise. I would not write any songs and send them to Michael if I know already that he will not like it. Why should I do it if I know what he likes? So of course we are collecting ideas and ideas I think would fit the best, or which Andi would like the most or that Michael would like the most or even the rest of the guys would like the most, is the song that we write. When Andi writes a song he already thinks how Dani would play the drums. How Sacha would play the guitar? That’s a great relationship musical wise and from a personal side as well. I don’t think that anything will change in the future that much except on positive things.

Helloween from its beginning has always been one of the top of heavy speed metal bands but today the metal scene is really flooded with heavy metal bands. Isn’t it hard now to keep the band at the top level and not let it get lost in the crowd? What is the secret of the band? What makes Helloween still stand out?

I’ve already told you the secret. It is that we have different influences, that we don’t do heavy metal for the purpose of doing heavy metal. It is a lifestyle and that’s where we come from, it is our life and that’s what we put into our music, it is a way we are writing music. We don’t have one or two songwriters like most of the bands, everyone is writing songs in the band except Dani. We have like four songwriters in one band tell me one band that works the same way… I don’t know any of those in metal bands. Maybe that’s the key for success. Helloween always sounds different. A Helloween record sticks out of any speed or heavy metal record. Andi is a great singer, he is the only guy who sounds that way. I don’t know any singers who sound the same way. I know many Michael Kiske for example, many singers sound like him!

There are also so many singers who sound like Bruce Dikinson, that’s not special. However, no one sounds like Andi. He has a special voice and a special sound maybe that’s another key to the success of Helloween.

Do you think that heavy metal bands copy too much each other and maybe copy the fathers of the genres such as Iron Maiden or Helloween etc.?

I don’t know, I think there are just too many heavy metal bands, everybody thinks he is a guitar player, everybody thinks he is a producer, everybody thinks he is a rock star.

Since the whole myspace and social networks stuff, everybody thinks he is a rock star and that’s bulshit. First of all it is about art and music, it is not about being cool. You just create art if you get something created in a creative way. In my opinion that’s the success for any band. That’s why there is no second Iron Maiden, that’s why there is no second Metallica. Those bands created something that no one else was able to create because of their characters and their creativity.
Basically there are too many bands around and most of them maybe copy themselves. That’s what I was saying before: they do things on purpose they say:

“- Oh lets do a heavy metal band that sounds like Helloween!
– Okay ha ha ha. We need a drummer who can play really fast bass drums!
– Okay I found one!
– Great! Now we need two guitarists and they have to play two voice guitar solos.
– Yeah! Great! Ha ha that sounds much more like Helloween!
– Oh the singer sucks! We need someone that can sound very high! Aaaaaah!”

And then you have a band that sounds like Helloween but that is not how you do music! Come on! That’s not the way to do music!

Interview réalisée en octobre 2010 par phoner
Traduction : Isa
Myspace Helloween : www.myspace.com/helloween

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