Helloween guitarist Michael Weikath has heard the rumblings before, that hard rock is dead, but as long as the German quintet is around, it’s still very much alive.
“We were out with Dio about 10 or 11 years ago, and he had a press conference,” Weikath said recently. “He was on the verge of becoming famous, and so they had a press conference. I thought, ‘Wow, if only I had a press conference like that,’ but now we have it everywhere we go, if there’s too many reporters who want to talk to us. For instance, in South America and in Hungary and Poland, they love to put on press conferences.
“The things they asked Dio was the same now, ‘Is hard rock dead?’ So life goes on. They say hard rock is supposed to be dead, but I always like to refer to this as hard rock or heavy rock, because you take the term ‘heavy metal,’ and what you basically think about is Pantera or something. If you take the lyrics, it has a very negative output, even though the guys in Pantera may be nice guys, the output they have doesn’t create something positive. I don’t like the term ‘heavy metal,’ but I could get used to it when (Judas) Priest was around and standing up for it or Manowar at the best of times.
“You’re on the plane and the flight attendants always ask you what you do, what kind of music you do, and I once said, ‘We’re doing heavy metal,’ and I saw one turn to his colleagues and acted like we were Pantera or Guns N’ Roses, something real bad. So I stopped saying heavy metal. Now I say we’re doing hard rock like in an old-fashioned way, like Deep Purple, and they go ‘Yeah, yeah,’ only we’re doing it a bit more modern.”
Helloween sticks to its metal guns on its Velvel debut album, “Better Than Raw” (released in the fall), using buzzing and braying guitars to support its lean, melodic edge.
“We wanted to sound fresher and more up to date,” Weikath said, “because it’s always been said that we’re old-fashioned. That was never really the case. I always say, ‘You don’t know how modern we are, because you just don’t get it.’ But then, provided that, you would always have to work hard to create a sound environment, where people could say, ‘Okay, this ain’t old-fashioned.’ The main objective on the production was to make it more modern and fresh and direct, and I think we’ve succeeded.”
Even though hard rock’s popularity has waned in the 1990s, Helloween’s following grew, all the more surprising considering what it went through. Its original singer, Kai Hansen, departed in 1989 to form Gamma Ray, and his replacement, Michael Kiske, was let go in 1993, the same year drummer Ingo Schwictenberg committed suicide. Singer Andi Deris and drummer Uli Kusch helped put Helloween back on solid ground, rounded out by guitarist Roland Grapow and original bassist Markus Grosskopf.
“When we started out, it wasn’t natural at all to get a record contract anymore,” Weikath said, “so we started out that way because in our minds we said, ‘We’ve gotta do something really extraordinary, real extreme, to at least get a record contract.’ Then we got one and we were all very lucky. We were also very hard-headed, and once you get that far, what else could we have done? Each single member would go out and try do something or what?
“And, god, this thing has too many followers and fans around the world, so it would be entirely stupid to call it a wrap. We really wouldn’t know what to do if Andi wouldn’t have been willing to join the band; we wouldn’t have put out adverts saying ‘Helloween’s looking for a brand new singer.’ He’s the one we would eventually trust, and that basically saved the whole thing.” More touring and more studio work is planned for Helloween’s new year, Weikath said.
“We’ll be doing an album of cover tracks,” he said. “Some tracks I know we’re going to do, like ‘Hocus Pocus’ by Focus and ‘The Faith Healer’ by Alex Harvey and ‘Juggernaut’ by Frank Marino (and Mahogany Rush) and Abba’s ‘Lay All Your Love On Me.’ Don’t be too surprised about Abba, they were a great band.”
BWF (before we forget): Trick or treat with Helloween on the Web @ www.helloween.com. … The Helloween album discography – “Helloween” EP (1985); “Walls of Jericho” (1986); “Keeper of the Seven Keys Part 1” (RCA, 1987); “Keeper of the Seven Keys Part 2” (1988); “I Want Out – Live in the U.K.” (1989); “Pink Bubbles Go Ape” (EMI, 1990); “Chameleon” (1993); “Master of the Rings” (1994); “Time of the Oath” (1996); “High Live” (1996); “Better Than Raw” (Velvel, 1998).