Helloween – Pumpkins AlignedSunday, 13th June 2021
Next to the classic lineups of Judas Priest and Iron Maiden coming back together during the late 90’s and early 2000’s, the most welcome reunion metalheads clamored for globally took place a couple of years back when vocalist Michael Kiske and guitarist/vocalist Kai Hansen returned to Helloween – growing the membership to a seven-piece in the process. Celebrating worldwide with a long Pumpkins United tour where the band would deliver a three-hour plus show encompassing all facets of their power metal mastery. To say anticipation is abuzz for the self-titled reunion studio record is an understatement – and thankfully the magic is still there. The speed, the musicianship, the catchy hooks, the superior melodies, the aural guitar harmony treasures – along with more experience and a thoughtful outlook to present all this talent in the proper capacity.
We reached out to guitarist Sascha Gerstner through Skype and he graciously gave us insight into the reunion, the songwriting and performance outlook for the record, video work, thoughts on his time within Helloween and Freedom Call, plus his views on the status of the band, the metal scene, and what the future holds.
Dead Rhetoric: Helloween is the new self-titled record for the seven-piece outfit, and obviously highly anticipated. How did the songwriting and development take shape – as I’d imagine it wasn’t easy to incorporate all the ideas flying around to keep seven members with three singers and three guitarists happy?
Sascha Gerstner: (laughs). That’s a lot of people, and there are a lot of opinions, of course. We’ve been on tour for a couple of years before we started to record the album, and I have to say it was a blast from the beginning. It was a growing family with Kai Hansen and Michael Kiske coming back to the band, we had such a good tour that it felt easy to do the album. It was a long process and we collected ideas beforehand, overall I must say it was lots of work. It was very easy to choose songs and record, so the recording process was very fun actually. We had a whole pre-production beforehand to choose the songs and figure out who would be singing what. Michael and Andi, they get along very well, so from the beginning it was almost love at first sight. We were just happy that it works that way.
Dead Rhetoric: As you said, you were able to tour even before you worked on this record. Do you think that time helped work out any particular kinks or animosity between other members, or had that all been worked out before you were on the road?
Gerstner: In Helloween, that’s a great thing about this band is you have a lot of songwriters. In general with most bands, you have one or two people being the leader or writing the songs and giving some direction in the band. Before Kai and Michael came back, I had been in the band for sixteen to seventeen years, and it was a stable lineup. We had this machinery going on, this working process that we have developed over time. And then it was just like, two people being added to this working machinery, and we knew Kai for a long time. I have known Kai for nineteen years. With Helloween we did the Hellish Rock One and Hellish Rock Two tours with Gamma Ray. We spent a lot of time together already, there were no problems. While on tour we figured out we get along very well, all of us together. It made it easy to come up with this idea to record an album.
Dead Rhetoric: In a recent story for Decibel magazine, fellow guitarist Kai Hansen described your songwriting style as ‘always struggling to find the truth in life’. Is that a fair and accurate assessment of what you try to get across for your specific songs in Helloween – and how do you assess the songwriting style of each musician in the band?
Gerstner: Um, actually I’m wondering because I wrote a song “Best Time” for instance. It’s basically for someone who wants to leave the past behind and having the best time of his or her life. Making a big step into the future and leaving the past behind. It’s a positive song, it’s not about struggling. I don’t know in what context he said that, I’m a very thankful person and interested in a lot of things. I’m a tiny bit spiritual, maybe that’s what he meant. “Angels” is a track about someone that is like the devil in disguise, someone who is covering up as an angel, pretending to be someone nice and turns out to be a totally different person. There again, it’s just a matter of how you get out of those things. The bonus track I wrote is “Golden Times”, which is also a very positive song. That’s the whole agenda we have with the band – we tend to make positive lyrics, or sometimes it can get a bit social with criticism in there. Usually we want to have a good time, and don’t spend too much time with evil lyrics.
I would say lyric-wise it’s not so much different, except Weikath has quirky lyrics sometimes with funny turnbacks. That can happen, and from the music you have differences. When they started this thing which is now called power metal, it wasn’t based on existing bands who went in that direction. Kai is a big fan of Judas Priest, and you can clearly hear that in his songwriting. Weikath, he is a huge fan of the 60’s and 70’s, The Beatles, old Whitesnake and Deep Purple. You have Markus who loves punk, he’s a big Ramones fan. Andi is a hard rock guy, he can write great rock songs and great metal songs at the same time. I have a lot of new wave influences from the 80’s and a lot of progressive rock, a little bit of Saga, jazz rock. This all combined gives you a certain style of writing, these influences you have. On the other hand, if you look at the three guitarists, there is a red line that connects us to each other. We all love the work of Michael Schenker, the old Scorpions stuff, that’s where we come from with the playing style. We just love great music, and that maybe makes a Helloween song pretty special.
Dead Rhetoric: How difficult of a process is it to whittle down the songs to a final list given five songwriters fighting for space on the album?
Gerstner: We have a big family now as I said before, and it’s not just the band. We have management we have been working with for a long time, since 2004. And then we have Dennis Ward, and Charlie Bauerfeind who has been producing Helloween records for quite a while. We have a big family sitting in the control room so when we are playing the demos to each other, we figured out together what gives the album a great flow and fits together. By the way, that’s what we’ve always done in the past as well. Each of the members would record their demos, and we would meet somewhere and play our songs. You could see an instant reaction of the guys if they liked a song or not. Everything we do comes out very naturally.
Dead Rhetoric: And is it a democratic process to decide who handles what lead breaks and harmonies for the guitar work on this record?
Gerstner: Absolutely. Charlie has a very strict idea about what he wants on a record, that’s what you want from a producer. Before we started recording the guitars he came up and told me his idea. He saw us live a couple of times in this formation, three guitar players. What I’ve heard coming off from the stage is magical to me, and he wanted to capture this magic on the album. He wanted to record all of our ideas, from all three guitarists. We would just start with the first five songs, Charlie and myself, recording the guitar. Just play like you’ve been the sole guitar player in Helloween. Every track with every trick you want to record, we recorded. When these five songs were done, we sent them to Dennis and Kai and they worked on the same five tracks, doing the same thing. While they were recording I would work on the next five songs back and forth. Charlie would then take the tracks to Tenerife Studios and work with Weikath at the end, doing the same thing. He decided in the end what kind of mixture of the guitar tracks he would use, using the feeling of what he had when he saw us live. That was a pretty good idea. It avoided the discussion of wanting to play this or that, more or less it was his decision and the songwriters decision. We recorded three guitar solos between us, and for instance on the Andi track, he would decide with Charlie what solo worked better for him.
Dead Rhetoric: Was it unanimous to have “Skyfall” be the first track to represent the new album? How did the editing process work for the single versus the album version of the track?
Gerstner: When Kai was working on this track, the whole production was working on that track. It was developing, there were more and more parts to get longer and longer. When he presented it to us, it just blew us away. It was instantly a single. We don’t want to come up with some radio track or rock ballad, we wanted to give us something nice to the fans to make this first impact. “Skyfall” was the perfect single. And of course, with the video we had to do an edit for that. It was already working on more than seven-minutes for just the video – it took the producer almost six months to make the video because of the CGI and programming. There are some parts missing that obviously make the song nicer, but it’s great that we have two versions. There is an alternate version with different vocal structures, another version where Kai sings more. It’s pretty nice so the fans can see that we get along well, and we can pull off a lot of different styles.
Dead Rhetoric: How do you feel about the artwork for this album?
Gerstner: The artwork was the first thing we talked about before we even started recording something. While we had been on tour, we would sit at some airport and talk about if we would do an album, what kind of direction would we want to go in with the artwork? All of us grew up in the vinyl days, you would have this big vinyl in your hands, and the nice artwork gives more value to the music. There are thirty-five years of Helloween as a band, different eras of the band, combine that on the artwork. We wanted to involve a real artist that’s a painter, to give the whole package a bigger value. The artwork is brilliant – it includes a little homage to Dr. Stein, somewhere in the picture, there are things to discover. It’s very nice.
Dead Rhetoric: When you entered Helloween back in 2003, what was your feeling playing in such an iconic band probably growing up as a fan and then joining? Did you have any fears that had to be conquered or did you feel confident based on your previous work with Freedom Call that you were up to the challenge?
Gerstner: You know, the thing is when I left Freedom Call, I basically left the metal scene. I went more into the studio direction, I worked as a studio guitar player and produced bands, writing songs. I did a lot of pop and rock music, alternative rock. I was out of the metal scene, I didn’t even know that Helloween were searching for a guitar player. And then one day, Charlie called me up as I knew him before. He told me he wanted to connect me with Weikath because they spoke about me. Later on I figured out in magazines they were discussing that I could be probably the next guitar player in Helloween, and I didn’t know that. I knew them from my time in school, but I wasn’t a big fan of Helloween. I knew some of the songs, and when Weikath called me up I was out on a date. He called me 30 minutes after Charlie called me, and I was in a hurry. I told him to hurry up, tell me what he wants. Later on he told me that was very impressive for him, because he would receive all these guitar players tapes because they wanted to be in the band, and I was like tell me what you want, I am in a hurry.
Then we met for four weeks, hanging out, playing guitar. Everything happened very quickly, they asked me if I had a couple of songs because they wanted to know if I could write. I felt very appreciated. By the time I was 25 years old, I couldn’t even imagine what is happening now. From the first meetings to the album recording, everything happened within one year. There was no time to process. Straight after that we went out on tour. It took me two albums and two tours to really realize what happened, because it was so quick. When you are so young, it’s very overwhelming with all the travelling. It was a different level than what I was used to. Now I look at it and think it’s crazy, can somebody just wake me up? It still feels that way – especially with this pandemic, you really know what you are missing. For me, it’s the live tours, hanging out with the band, hanging out with our fans, I really miss this.
Dead Rhetoric: When it comes to your songwriting contributions with Helloween, what are some of your proudest moments when you look upon your work?
Gerstner: I’m not a proud person – I don’t like the word proud. I think people are wrong when they look in that kind of direction. If you go on a stage and a band is playing your song and the people are singing your lyrics, that’s pretty amazing. You feel appreciated – I wouldn’t say I’m standing on the stage being proud, I feel respected.
Dead Rhetoric: Did you feel like the Pumpkins United worldwide tour get everyone back into shape that allayed any fears that the band wouldn’t be able to create and execute a strong album?
Gerstner: Of course I think everything we did until the reunion, and the meetings we had before the tour, everything was naturally building up. From the first meetings, we had a lot of rehearsals to do of course, and then each time you have a lineup change in the band, you have to become a real band again. That’s how it felt for me when I joined Helloween – it was not a real band anymore. It was a bunch of guys who were with the band, and then a new drummer and a new guitar player. It takes some time to get the machinery going. This time it was easier because we already knew each other. The old guys already knew each other for a long time, and there’s a certain humor going on with each other. We were having a good time.
Touring and playing together, you figure out what works with a lot of singers and a lot of guitar players, it gives you even more confidence when you go into the studio to record something.
Dead Rhetoric: What would surprise people to learn about the musicians, chemistry, and business handlings of Helloween that keeps you all happy and satisfied?
Gerstner: Maybe from what I heard so far, during interviews and seeing what the fans are reacting (to), everybody is talking about the past and how we would get along because the rest of the band had split up at one point with Kai and Michael (Kiske), and would they get along with the egos involved. I’ve got to say, there’s enough ego left to have a big force to develop something at being creative. It would be pretty boring if it would just be like, easy peasy. At the same time, you have mature people. It’s the thing I think about with young males, because I’ve been one too. There is a lot of testosterone involved, and just imagine being 19-20 years old, you are getting gold records, you are having success in the 1980’s, and there are substances involved, girls, and all this stuff. I can just imagine, and you are a young male and you want to show off. That’s the good thing about aging, you care less about that stuff, you want to solve problems, you can sacrifice your ego. Especially for me, being a lead guitar player in a band with other lead guitar players, for me if there is a third guitar player coming in, I need to step back sometimes. Even before this reunion came into being, I went to Kai during the Hellish Rock tour and told him since we are talking about getting back together, I have no problem to step back and playing rhythm guitars in many songs, just to let you know. It’s how adults communicate.
Kai is used to being the main man in Gamma Ray. Having that democracy happen in a band like ours, it’s new for him. We figured that out. They aren’t the same anymore. I could tell over the last eighteen years with my time in the band, people have changed as they’ve gotten older. You want to stay together. The main success for a band is just sticking together, not getting egos involved. Ego destroys music, ego destroys everything. Just like a marriage, if you suppress your partner, you will lose your partner at some point. And then the magic that happened between the two of you in the beginning is just gone.
Dead Rhetoric: How has your outlook on music or guitar playing changed now that you are in your forties compared to how you viewed things in your twenties and thirties?
Gerstner: I’m getting slower (laughs). The thing is, you are more relaxed somehow. A funny thing, a couple of years ago I found an old cassette tape of my playing when I was sixteen years old and I thought, what the heck – this is pretty good. I was sitting in studios with older people at that age, I was pretty developed already. I had this vibe going on, and I’ve recreated it in the last five or six years. It’s less about skills, you have to have skills for what you do, it’s just a tool for making music. That’s not why I started to play music after all.
Around the top when I joined Helloween, I stopped being a guitar player in my mind. It was more becoming an artist and a musician. I would sing on the demos, play all the instruments, and the guitar is just a part of me, a little tool that helps me be a part of this band.
Dead Rhetoric: You mentioned a love of Michael Schenker. Have you ever had the opportunity to meet him or sit down and chat with him about guitar playing?
Gerstner: No. I saw him briefly a couple of times. There was no chance to do something together, but I hope there will be at some point. I have some ideas when I will meet him next time. He is on the same label as us, it could happen.
Dead Rhetoric: Tell us about your synth pop/ electronic rock band Palast – do you enjoy the diversion this music and genre provides, and where did you interest start for this venture?
Gerstner: That’s the thing like I told you before. I stopped being a guitar player – a lot of instrumentalists are into their instrument only. They force themselves to develop a lot of skills, which is nice and fun – but I am a visual person. I have a visual background even before I was playing guitar, I had synthesizers in my mind as a 12 or 13 year old. I love a lot of different music styles, at one point I was playing in a jazz rock band, heavy metal, it was always about music. At one point, people have asked me when I am going to do a solo record. If I would do a solo record, it wouldn’t be like Helloween because I’m already enjoying the work with Helloween, and doing that type of music with them. Why would I spend a couple of songs on a solo album with the same music? I’d rather give them to my band. I want to do some different, more a visual direction, synthesizers – I collect old 80’s analog and digital synthesizers. The ideas came up, developing a different guitar style for that. Sometimes I just play single notes, and sequencer bass. The same goes for my photography and music video interests. I do a lot of creative stuff, it keeps me sane.
Dead Rhetoric: Do you feel the status and reputation of Helloween has grown over the years – especially at times when power metal wasn’t necessarily the hottest genre in specific territories of the globe?
Gerstner: Absolutely. For Helloween, it was always growing and growing. We have a few markets where we have a lot of great fans. Especially in Latin America, in Asia, and Eastern Europe, in Spain and Italy. It was always growing, we had great shows. Even when I started out with Freedom Call, who introduced me to that type of style because I wasn’t into it before that. The only two songs I knew from Helloween before that were “Dr. Stein” and “I Want Out”. I didn’t even know about power and speed metal back then because I was listening to totally different music. When Freedom Call happened, they introduced me to the style and I didn’t even know that there was such a huge scene. We went straight on tour with Angra, we played a couple of shows with Gamma Ray back then, we did a tour with Virgin Steele and Hammerfall. I didn’t know all these bands, it was brand new to experience that and see an underground scene that was growing pretty big. We would play in Europe in front of a couple of thousand people.
I don’t like the subgenre thing of metal. I know a lot of people want to diversify. To me it’s all heavy metal. If you played all the subgenres to your grandmother, she would say its noise. All of it. No matter if it’s gothic metal, speed metal, thrash metal, death metal. For a normal person that isn’t into that music, it’s the same noise. I’m going in the same direction with its all heavy metal. This is a heavy metal scene. The metal scene with all the subgenres is growing bigger and bigger. We have all these huge festivals in Europe. I remember I played the Wacken festival in 1998 or something, it was for fewer people in comparison to what it is now. It’s very nice to see the metal scene is growing, a lot of younger bands coming up and developing new styles. Djent, technical metal, all this stuff happening, it’s crazy with a lot of diversity going on.
Dead Rhetoric: What’s on the agenda for Helloween over the next year or two once the album hits the streets? Can you foresee this expanded lineup going along for a few more years and possibly another studio record?
Gerstner: I just hope so. Like right now in this pandemic we are in, we just want to continue from what happened before. You have to imagine the last show we played, we had been on tour with Whitesnake and the Scorpions in Brazil. The last show was on stage at Rock in Rio. We went home from this tour, totally in a rush. We made the record and planned on going on tour again. Especially now I am thinking, we should make it happen again. We will be on tour next year. You can’t promise anything nowadays. I see this continuing.