Stargazer – Taking Over the SkyTuesday, 14th March 2023
Scandinavian artists in the melodic hard rock / metal community possess this intuitive ability to channel heroes from the past and bring their own sense of finesse to the table for some memorizing material. That’s the case for Norwegian band Stargazer – together since the late 2000’s, they’ve been assembling some strong songwriting that carries a mix of Rainbow/Whitesnake textures next to TNT, Gary Moore, Dokken, Dio and others for this third full-length Life Will Never Be the Same. The versatility when it comes to anthems, ballads, and mid-tempo rockers can’t be denied. We reached out to vocalist Tore André Helgemo and guitarist William Ernstsen to learn more about the work behind the new record, single/video choices, thoughts on live performances including the recent opening special guest slot for Geoff Tate, how film/movies inspire song titles for the band, passions beyond the music, and hopeful touring plans beyond working on the next record.
Dead Rhetoric: Life Will Never Be the Same is the third Stargazer album – where you’ve expanded the lineup to a quintet. Beyond the lineup changes, where do you see this record sitting in terms of the discography of the band as far as the songwriting and performances?
Tore André Helgemo: I think it’s a further development in terms of our sound and our production. We found out during the production we were getting better at the production, and that we could experiment with going different ways, more so with the melodies and the compositions are more complex with more variation. Some are harder and some are softer.
Dead Rhetoric: Outside of your normal performing/ songwriting duties, you both also handle the production/ engineering sides for this album. How much of a challenge is it to wear multiple hats when wanting to achieve the best outcome in terms of tones and audio output for this set of material?
William Ernstsen: I was the engineer for the whole album. It was actually recorded at my place, I built a studio here five years ago, and it’s developed into a world class studio. I know it’s a bit of a challenge to be both the musicians and the engineers, but in today’s economy it’s the only way to be able to make the record with… you don’t get a lot of money from the record companies these days, so you have to do everything yourself. This is a natural progression, and it’s something you have to get used to. And you have to be critical of yourselves, in the performances. We know it’s a challenge, but we like it.
Helgemo: I feel so lucky that I am able to work together with William. William is the brilliant technician in the band, and he’s a brilliant musician as well. Sometimes it’s so seldom to find both in one musician. There are a lot of hats to keep on at one time.
Ernstsen: A lot of times these days people are recording in their home studios, and then sending it to a bigger studio. I don’t think that works very well for us, we need to get most of the job done ourselves and then get a mixing guy to do the rest. If you are doing reamping in a different studio, it’s a modern way of recording. We like to do things the old-fashioned way, have the mic in front of the amp, and it’s going to sound just like you played it.
Helgemo: If it doesn’t sound good here, it won’t sound good elsewhere.
Dead Rhetoric: Were there any songs on this album that presented more of a challenge to get just right either in terms of the songwriting or the studio performances than others?
Helgemo: “Heartbroken”, that was a tough one because of all the themes in it, to find the right expression. The intro and the mellow parts, they were there first. We were quite happy when the chorus suddenly appeared. We had many rounds with that song.
Ernstsen: And another one was “Don’t Kill”. We changed that one around a lot, but finally when Tore got his pipes right, we had the right verses for it. It was much harder than we anticipated. That’s okay, the challenges worked out well for the best at the end.
Dead Rhetoric: And William, did you enjoy the extended solo sections in a song like “Rock the Sky” where you get the chance to showcase your abilities? I heard a lot of guitar players like John Sykes, Gary Moore, George Lynch in your playing…
Ernstsen: Thank you for mentioning my name around those great guitar players. I really enjoyed it – Stargazer is as much a guitar band as it is a vocal band. Tore always gives me a lot of space to express myself, I am lucky to be in a band like this. Guitar playing has been a big thing in my life, I’m really lucky to be able to express myself as much as I want.
Helgemo: And it gives me a chance to drink some more water on stage during this song! (laughs).
Dead Rhetoric: You aren’t shy Tore with your own abilities, reaching back to hit some high notes yourself in that song. Is it a challenge to get your voice in tip top shape to hit those upper notes?
Helgemo: Some days can be harder than others. Sometimes it just doesn’t work. All of a sudden, a day I will start in the studio, and it may not seem to work – but then an hour or two later, something happens and wow we have a take. It’s a process, sometimes it’s spot on, other times you have to work harder at it.
Dead Rhetoric: You’ve made a number of videos for the new record – how does the decision making process work when it comes to singles to deliver to showcase what the listeners can expect, and how do you feel about the video making process to promote your work these days through social media platforms?
Ernstsen: That’s always a challenge, with picking the singles. We were talking about this before releasing the album. We wanted all the songs to be good on the album, there’s no fillers I think. It’s very strong all the way. It’s all about thinking, what is Stargazer, and what are we going to show (the people)? I think we show some melodic stuff, some harder stuff, and we wanted a mix of things. We were thinking should we have “Don’t Kill” as a single? That’s a really good question.
Helgemo: I really don’t like the process of picking out singles. You have four songs – but what about the others, are they not good enough? It’s like picking from your children.
Dead Rhetoric: There was a ten-year break between album releases for Stargazer. What circumstances took place regarding this prolonged absence from the recording studios – and do you feel you’ve made up for lost time with this record?
Ernstsen: We released our first album in 2009. And that’s when I started thinking about producing and engineering our own stuff in our own way. We had to save up some money, a lot of personal things were also going on during those years. Then we had to build the studio, and that’s part of the reason. We didn’t plan this, it just happened to be this way. The Sky Is the Limit our second album is the first one we engineered ourselves. We got good criticism for this album; people really liked it. We will show people that we really want this, and this is something that we really want to do. We are so happy that people like it.
Helgemo: Always from the start we were thinking about being true to ourselves and the way we love music. And that has come out. I don’t think we had found our formula though before we made The Sky Is the Limit. Things happened to make that album better, we saw the light in a lot of aspects. And then we got a really boost working with Søren Andersen from Copenhagen, Denmark.
Ernstsen: After The Sky Is the Limit we decided that we were going to put 110% into everything we do. So that’s how we made this album. There was a small delay because of COVID-19. The other album was released in October 2019, and we were only able to have one gig before the pandemic took all the shows away. So, we decided right away we might as well make another album.
Dead Rhetoric: How would you describe what Stargazer is like in a live setting versus what the consumers experience on record? What do you hope to get across when it comes to your performances – and what have been some of the most memorable to date in the band’s career? I know you recently got the chance to open for Geoff Tate, that must have been a very exciting experience…
Helgemo: Most memorable – the last show that we did with Geoff was on a Saturday, and it was great. It was a fun experience. Even as a special guest band, as we were. The live setting – it’s a lot of energy, and authentic. We are what you see, there is no auto-tuning, everything is there. We try to stay true to the songs.
Ernstsen: The good thing about the Geoff Tate tour, I don’t think that his band might have thought we were that good before they met us. We are not very well known outside of Norway. But we’ve done quite a few gigs here. After the first gig, they saw a lot of people in the audience with Stargazer shirts on. So they asked people, ‘how come they only have Stargazer shirts, no Geoff Tate shirts?’. That’s what happens when you play near your hometown, a lot of people know us. They were really nice, they let us use the lighting and our own sound guy.
Live, it’s more improvised. Tore adjusts a lot of his screams, I can adjust some of the endings. We try to be like the older bands. Every day is still different, but try our best to stay close to the songs so that people will still recognize them. The recognizable parts to the songs, they’ll always be there.
Dead Rhetoric: I do miss this aspect in today’s live scene. Many bands want their sound to be so perfect, and to me a live experience should be more authentic and organic, to expect the unexpected from show to show…
Ernstsen: Yes. And sometimes we will change up the setlist, because people want different songs. That’s the way we work in studio, sometimes doing some improvising just like the old guys used to do in the studio. It gives things a fresh perspective.
Helgemo: I love the direct contact that you can get from the audience. People love our name, because we are not shoegazers, we are stargazers. That’s what we are like on stage, a larger-than-life experience. We go out there and try to bring our all with the audience.
Dead Rhetoric: What was it like to have former TNT bassist Morty ‘Black’ Skaget in Stargazer – did he ever provide any special music business insight or memories of his time in TNT that you’ve been able to take into consideration for Stargazer?
Ernstsen: We were thinking at the time of having the rhythm section from the Intuition album of TNT play with us. We have known these guys forever, they treated us very well and have always been kind to us. So, we asked them to play on the last albums. They wanted to play our music as best as they could. They never had complaints; they haven’t played that kind of music in years. They play in different kinds of bands now, softer stuff. They were very nice; we had a really great time.
Dead Rhetoric: What are three essential albums that are benchmark favorites for each of you when it comes to hard rock / metal – and what would you consider the best concert memory you’ve ever had, taking in a show purely as an audience member – plus what made that show so special to you?
Helgemo: Dio – The Last in Line is one of the best albums for me. Even though I had Holy Diver before that, with The Last in Line it was even more magic. That was formative. I also had if I go back into my teens, Shout at the Devil – Mötley Crüe. Because that was one of the first really metal albums I listened to. When I got a bit older, I got to know Led Zeppelin. That’s when you grow up and you understand that there is music that was made before your childhood. If I should pick just one… IV is high on the list, Physical Graffiti as well. After Neil Young and Crazy Horse, seeing them in 2001, that’s when I knew I was going to get serious about my music. He was on fire this night, he was in his late fifties. I had goosebumps.
Ernstsen: You mentioned some of my favorite guitar players. Gary Moore – Corridors of Power. Under Lock and Key with Dokken. Maybe Live in Japan by Deep Purple. Or In Rock or Rising– Rainbow. Blackmore is very important for me as a guitarist and songwriter. I used to live in Los Angeles for a couple of years. I got to see a lot of big bands, I saw Judas Priest on the Defenders of the Faith tour, incredible. I also saw the Monsters of Rock tour with Dokken, Metallica, Van Halen. That’s one of my biggest concert memories. Pink Floyd as well in 1992, David Gilmour is another great guitar hero of mine.
Dead Rhetoric: What has it been like being a part of the Mighty Music roster now for a few years? Do you believe they have solid communication and a great promotional team that works hand in hand to get your music out to the right sources globally?
Ernstsen: We didn’t have a record deal before the first album was done. But then Søren sent out the tapes for the second album to Mighty, telling them they had to check out this album. And that’s how we got the deal, we didn’t know it was sent to Denmark. They have been treating us very well. This is not a project album, we are a real band that enjoys touring. They said after the second album did so well, they would promote the new album even more. They are really on top of things.
Helgemo: They’ve really stepped up their game. We have shown them that we can deliver.
Dead Rhetoric: What would surprise people to learn about you guys as musicians in your off-time or spare time away from music, any specific hobbies, interests, or passions you like to pursue? And is it a balancing act to execute band responsibilities with careers, families, and outside relationships?
Helgemo: Yes, it’s a balancing project. Fortunately, we have families that support us, and we are in the right age to give it a go now. The kids have grown up and are out of the house, so we can take our wives with us on the road. Or go without them.
Ernstsen: I like to do sports, walk in the mountains. I like to watch movies, I get a lot of ideas writing when I watch movies, all kinds of song titles. There is a lot of great music in the film industry. We open the show by playing some music from The Terminator. It’s an intro to our set.
Helgemo: I studied film science. I have a dog, I like to run, jogging in the marshes and hills. It’s very good for songwriting. Many times I’m running alone and after seven or eight kilometers, things pop up and I can’t forget it.
Ernstsen: My father was a skiing instructor, down hill skiing. So, I started skiing when I was two years old. I could have made a professional career as a skier, but I wanted to play my guitar more. My parents were bummed (laughs). I’m so glad I made this decision though; music has been my passion and an important part of my life.
Dead Rhetoric: What’s on the agenda for Stargazer or other musical endeavors for the band members over the next twelve months?
Helgemo: We have no agency when it comes to the booking scene abroad. That needs to come into place. When that’s in place, we will do some touring. UK, Europe, USA, Japan, everywhere. South America.
Ernstsen: There are quite a few gigs lined up. We are going to go to Copenhagen in May, a festival there. We have a UK festival in June. There are quite a few gigs in Norway. And then we will start recording a new album in January. We are really excited about that. We are going to push things to the limit now.