The Unity – Join the Hellish JoyrideTuesday, 15th August 2023
Photo: Michael Stammwitz
German power metal band The Unity have probably delivered their most versatile and satisfying studio album to date for their latest record The Hellish Joyride. People who appreciate strong vocal melodies, killer musical hooks, and tempos/arrangements that can range from faster, double kick speed metal to reflective ballads will find this latest material right in their wheelhouse. On the eve of the album’s release we got the chance to speak to drummer Michael Ehré on a warm sunny day about the latest lineup change, the songwriting versatility that allows the band to keep being consistent and creative, the playful video work on “Always Two Ways to Play”, thoughts on needing to play more live to build their following, how studio work kept things going moneywise during the pandemic, plus what’s on the horizon for Michael over the next year or so between The Unity, Primal Fear, and other activities.
Dead Rhetoric: What circumstances took place for Edguy bassist Tobias ‘Eggi’ Exxel to come into the fold for The Unity – and what do you think his skill sets and playing bring to the band that may differ from former bassist Jogi Sweers?
Michael Ehré: Yeah. Last year in the spring, Jogi decided to leave the band. ‘Eggi’/Tobias has helped us out before for a few shows, and also for a tour that we did with Rhapsody in 2020. We had the problem when Jogi left the band, we had a show to play a couple of weeks later. The obvious idea was to ask Tobias if he would like to help us out. And later we told him Jogi had left the band – we asked him what he thought about if he would imagine joining the band. And he did, so it was a real smooth thing to happen for us without any auditions. We didn’t want to audition someone else.
His playing – in 2021 the last album we brought out was the live album, which was Jogi on the bass. The Hellish Joyride is the first album to feature Tobias on bass. It was really cool to work with him. On the one hand, we have six songwriters now in the band. He contributed the song “Stay the Fool” for which he wrote the music. His playing – he’s a real heavy metal bass player. He has a lot of energy in his fingers, and a lot of cool ideas. He brought a fresh energy to the band. We are absolutely happy at the moment.
Dead Rhetoric: The Hellish Joyride is the fourth studio album for the band. You mention in the background information that this set of material stretches the boundaries of power metal even further than before. Where do you see the major differences – and did the extra downtime away from live activities because of the pandemic ensure a wider array of songs to develop this time?
Ehré: What we meant with this description that you’ve read was that we have a song called “Saints and Sinners” on the album which is a speed metal song. We’ve never had that before – we’ve had fast songs, sure, but we’ve never had songs like that and on the other hand we have on this album two kind of ballads, “You’re Not Forced to Stay” and “Something Good”. On the three studio albums we’ve done before we’ve only had one ballad (laughs). This was really something different. The good thing is, as soon as we record our parts as musicians, it still sounds like The Unity. For the people who listen to the album, maybe it’s not that big of a change, for us it was. We have two different ballad-esque tracks, speed metal too.
The COVID thing – the decision to release a live album was because of COVID. Our original idea was to bring out a new album. Maybe you remember when our last studio album Pride came out, in Germany it was the exact same day we had the lockdown. We were supposed to go on tour with Freedom Call, later on tour with Rage. Everything got cancelled, and we had the feeling that this album really didn’t happen at all. We had cool reviews, the people liked it, but we weren’t able to support the album. This was something we wanted to avoid during the COVID time. It would make no sense to release an album not knowing if we can properly promote it or not. We decided to bring out a live album to stay in the people’s minds, we really didn’t start to go into the songwriting mode at the time, we were all tired of this period. We didn’t have the right energy, and also a lack of creativity. That’s the problem, forced by the lack of energy. Nobody knew when it will end, how long it will go on. We started to go into musician mode when we knew we could go on tour again with Primal Fear and be able to promote the album.
Dead Rhetoric: Felipe Machado delivered a vibrant yet playful / tongue in cheek cover art this time around. How did the process work with Felipe this time around – as the title I’d imagine opened up his (and the band’s) imagination to create something special?
Ehré: Yeah, absolutely. Felipe did an awesome job. He also did the artwork for the live album where we introduced our mascot, called Dave the devil. When we came up with the idea of naming the album The Hellish Joyride – by the way, it’s the first time that The Unity album has the title of a song for the title of an album. It’s a cool title, we started to think about possible ideas for the artwork. We came up with this idea of this roller coaster, it’s a good idea. We had this chance with Felipe where would exchange more of the details that we had in mind. It was a cool process. When I look back into the moment we discussed it, we had our backdrop in mind on stage, and t-shirt ideas. I love that when you have really cool artwork with some details, colors, and unfortunately you don’t sell many CD’s or vinyl albums anymore. Who knows, in a few years, it may be unnecessary to have those ideas and have too many thoughts about it. I really hope that these sales will never stop. All the young people grew up without this physical media, you have most of your music these days on your phone. Without any details for the artwork, it’s missing out on that experience.
Dead Rhetoric: We have to discuss the part performance, part volleyball match video for “Always Two Ways to Play”. Who came up with the video treatment, the outfits you guys wore when playing volleyball, and do you believe this showcases a bit more of your personalities in a fun, engaging way than what most people would expect in a metal video?
Ehré: The idea was, when we discussed the first single, let’s do “Always Two Ways to Play”. We started to think about a possible video clip, the story. Stef our guitar player said maybe we should think about a different way to shoot the video. We have three studio albums out, we have a lot of videos out, and a lot of them are quite the same. Band performing in front of camera, and I like them, but it’s always the same. We thought okay, let’s give it a try and do something a bit different in a funny way. I asked Stef, what do you mean, what can we do? He said let’s play volleyball! I said, why? I can’t play volleyball. He said he can’t too, but that’s the reason why we should do it. At first, I thought it wasn’t a good idea. A few minutes later, let’s give it a try. We want the band to be as big as possible, and to promote the album in the best possible way. Why shouldn’t we dare to try something different like we have before? I think the people like it. We aren’t taking ourselves too seriously, and it’s something that we hear when we always talk to the fans. They describe us as nice and funny guys, we have a lot of fun on stage, off stage, in the rehearsal room. Some of the real, true metalheads maybe didn’t like it, but that was worth the risk. We have to look in the mirror and say we did the best we can, and we are really happy with the results. We have gotten a lot of good responses. Next week the next video comes out “Saints and Sinners”, and it’s more of a live shoot with performances.
It was a thin line to be really ridiculous. We aren’t looking good, but that was the intention with the short trousers. By the way – we bought all that stuff on Amazon! (laughs). For just a little money. I know why, but…(laughs). When we had the idea for this volleyball match against these girls, they all said let’s do it. No one worried about the short trousers and the funny-looking clothes. It was a good video shoot. It was not that long. We did a video for “The Storm” a few years ago, for the Rise album, and the video shoot took twelve hours. It’s a cool clip, made by a professional director. For this video we had three or four hours, and it was more than enough.
Dead Rhetoric: How satisfied are you with the development of The Unity at this point in your career? Are there specific bucket list items you want to check off down the line with this act that haven’t been achieved as of yet?
Ehré: I’m really satisfied with the musical development. I’m totally happy that we are not running out of new ideas for songs or anything. I’m also really happy that if you listen to The Unity, you can listen to an album from beginning to end and we are being ourselves. We are six songwriters with different influences and different ways to write music, but in the end, it always sounds like The Unity, with a really big variety. What we have to work on, our fan base. We need a lot more fans to keep going. It’s a lot of work. All of the bands suffer from people don’t buy music as much anymore on CD or vinyl, they listen more on their phones or through a computer. When you don’t make money for the band, to deliver a production of a certain quality, it’s not only up to us but to people like Felipe who does the artwork, a guy like Achim who does the mix, the people responsible for the booklet, the video director and people who shoot the video, this all costs money. It won’t surprise you that the money we get to make the album is not enough to deliver that quality.
It’s a clear thing if you don’t sell enough records, what can you do? We are still trying to make the band bigger and bigger. Therefore, we need to play live. It’s the main part of being successful. Everybody wants this – and because everybody has the same problem, every band wants to play. A smaller band always wants to be a special guest for a bigger band. It’s really hard, but we are not giving up. We are trying and trying. I will never be satisfied. When you are as big as Metallica? That won’t happen. Let’s see – we want to always get a bigger audience.
Dead Rhetoric: You will be playing double duty on the upcoming European tour with Primal Fear, which you are also a part of. How much conditioning and discipline will you have to handle as a result of those sets – and do you enjoy the diversity of styles?
Ehré: Yes, I love both bands. I was a big fan of Primal Fear when they released their first album at the end of the 90’s. I remember when I heard “Chainbreaker” the first time, I was really blown away. It was the time when Judas Priest were looking for a singer. Jugulator was not the music that I as a fan wanted to hear from the band. But Primal Fear was (laughs). I went to the record store, bought the CD, and thought every single song on the album was fantastic. It only took me twenty-five years to get in the band (laughs). Back in the day, when somebody would have told me that someday I would play drums in this band, I would have said no way.
I love both bands, and talking about my conditioning, I started to prepare for this special tour I guess one and a half months ago. Going to the gym, playing drums each day, not to get a lot of muscles but to stay in shape. When you play drums for three or four hours per day, you make the same movements all the time, and it’s not good for your body. You have to do something else to have a refreshment for your body. I can’t wait to hit the stage for both bands. It will be hard, and we have two off days on that tour, and one of the off dates we will play a festival with The Unity, so it’s only a one-off date for us.
Dead Rhetoric: What did you learn most about yourself during the downtime from the global pandemic over the past couple of years? Did you develop any new hobbies, interests, or insights about life in that time?
Ehré: No. What I actually developed was my own little studio in my house. When the pandemic started, I started to work for bands and artists all over the world by playing drums on their records. Everybody could ask me, and I said yes. The funny thing is, I said yes to a lot of people – there was some danger that some not so professional bands would ask me, and I may have worried about the quality. I was so impressed about the quality of these bands, and the artists, that was the good side of the pandemic. I was forced to think about other possibilities to at least make a little bit of money. One day I said to my wife, I should have done this before the pandemic. It’s a challenge, to not be in your comfort zone, people send stuff with pre-programmed drums, and it was up to me to reproduce it on the drums. I really learned a lot; I did a lot of really good recordings.
Dead Rhetoric: Henning of Metalium announced they are back – but you won’t be involved as their drummer. How do you feel about what they will be working on?
Ehré: We did this tribute song when Larz died, with Henning, Mathias, Chris Caffery was involved, Jens Becker from Grave Digger was nice enough to play the bass. It was a cool experience, a really sad reason but cool. The guys had the idea to continue with Metalium, I’m not able to do it. I offered them my help when it comes to studio work, producing, composing, but I can’t go on tour with the guys. It’s not possible because of all the other bands I’m playing with. I wish them nothing but the best. They will have a cool album coming out.
Dead Rhetoric: What’s on the horizon for The Unity, Primal Fear, and other projects/band activities for yourself over the next year or so?
Ehré: The focus is on The Unity and Primal Fear, of course. We have tours coming up with Primal Fear. Next year I will be a part of the Rock Meets Classic tour, as I did this year. Until summer I am fully booked. I produced the latest Velvet Viper album, that was a really cool album. I’m working with another band, in a completely different style. The studio work, I like it a lot. I want to have some time off my schedule to be focused on producing.