When HELLOWEEN announced the “Pumpkins United” tour, it was a moment fans had thus far only dreamed of. There was no talk about a new album initially, yet nevertheless, the band showed us undeniable chemistry in their live album, “United Alive.” Now, the seven musicians have teamed up together to work on their next release, “Helloween,” out on June 18, 2021, via Nuclear Blast Tonträger. We had the opportunity to chat with guitarist Sascha Gerstner about the release. Watch the interview here, or read the complete text below.
Hi, thank you so much for taking the time to sit down with me to do this interview; how have you been during this crazy year?
Sascha: I just tried to keep myself busy, because otherwise, it would have been pretty boring. Now, with all the touring and everything that’s missed, it’s a weird time for all of us. I’m just grateful that none of the people I know got sick or something and so thankfully, nothing happened to anyone, so that’s the good news. Other than that, it’s just crazy, isn’t it?
Yeah, very much so. I think I’ve never been as long without concerts as now and I can imagine that for you it’s even worse since you’re a professional musician. Let’s talk about more positive matters! You’re releasing your new album very soon and a lot of people are calling it the most anticipated release of the year. How are you feeling towards to release, does that create a lot of pressure?
Sascha: I wouldn’t call it pressure, but I would say it’s more excitement. It’s very exciting and actually, I didn’t know that we would receive such amazing critique. When you’re in the process of recording an album, of course, you want to always do your best, that’s what you always did, but you don’t know how the audience will receive it. So it’s actually quite exciting. Exciting times within these crazy times, which feels even weirder, because when the whole world is struggling and you have something to celebrate, it feels weird. The first couple of months were pretty weird because we were in the middle of the mixing session and everybody was shocked. Then, we had to postpone touring and everything so everybody had their struggles in a way. Having something to do, doing interviews and talking to people, and then receiving this amazing feedback for our record, is very uplifting.
Speaking of the term “uplifting,” that’s what I would use to describe the album. It’s very diverse and I think it’s also very nostalgic but we can talk about that a bit later, but how would you kind of compare it to your earlier work?
Sascha: Well, I would say now it feels just complete. It feels to me like a best-of album, but with new songs. It feels like the album is packed with all the eras the band went through, but with brand new songs. That’s how it feels to me.
That’s a good way to put it. The first track you wrote together with this lineup was the track “Pumpkins United,” presumably to promote the tour. A lot of fans have been calling it a combination of “Keeper of Seven Keys” and “The Dark Ride” album – there is a nostalgic atmosphere going on in the song, in the record too. Was that something that came naturally or was it just something you really wanted this record to have?
Sascha: I would say if it’s both, because you know, of course, we kind of wanted to combine all the variety the band went through artistically. If you go through our back catalogue, it’s such diverse work, such diverse records, and we always wanted to kind of combine that and then also having the old members back, especially having Michael back as a singer, and in combination with Andy made it very interesting too. So I think it’s both. One reason is that we kind of wanted to combine all that and the other thing is that it just came naturally because we went on tour for such a long time. It worked on the tour very much. From the beginning on, when we started to plan the setlist for the tour, Kai, for instance, suggested that he would play all the songs because he didn’t want to hang out backstage somewhere and wait for his limelight to just playing classics, so he went full-on and learned all the songs and I had to relearn stuff, so it was fun to do that actually. To combine all that with three guitars and two singers is very interesting and it worked really well on tour. Then, Charlie Bauerfeind, who produced the album, saw us live a couple of times and then he told us that that’s the way it’s going to be when we’re recording an album. He wants us to have this so-called magic, or a combination of energies on this record as well, from just what he saw live.
Talking a little bit about that tour, you had that lineup on tour. Was it always a plan for you guys to record a new album or is this kind of the result of having so much fun together and having great dynamics on stage.
Sascha: Well I would say that “Pumpkins United” was kind of a test run so to speak. That doesn’t sound very romantic, but we were wondering if we would be able to do something like that. It was also more like giving Kai the handle on this. We were like “okay, just do your thing and we’re going to record this, you know, and let’s see what’s going to happen with that” and then also being on tour together, we just grew together, it’s like a big family. I mean all of us: our crew, our management, which has been around with us for a long time, Bottom Row, they support us and have had our backs since 2004, and then Charlie Bauerfeind who was producing all the HELLOWEEN records I was playing on, so it’s like a big family and that helps a lot, and that makes things happen naturally.
I also received some promo photos with the record. There was this one photo in black and white, where you guys just make a very silly face together. Is that representative of the chemistry between you guys and is that sort of what you are as a band?
Sascha: Yeah, I mean, I would call it slapstick. You know there’s a lot of slapstick going on around our band. It always has been the core of HELLOWEEN, even when the old guys started out. You could tell they kind of didn’t take themselves too seriously, but in a slapstick manner. Then, when I joined the band, in the first couple of weeks, I was just hanging out with Michael Weikath and he is this very intelligent, real persona. There was an instant match because we kind of liked the same things, we like the same humor. You know, if you’re into Mr. Bean, you would love him. So, there are so many of these situations that we would come up with and which we all would put into humoristic perspective, and that’s the band’s character, I would say, for all the members.
Now, the new album is called “Helloween,” usually when a band names their album after themselves, it feels like somewhat of a new beginning. Is that also part of the reason you titled the record “Helloween?”
Sascha: Yes, also it’s like we went full-circle here because the first EP of HELLOWEEN was called “Helloween,” which is normally the start of something, and now it feels like a new era again. It’s the start of a new era, that’s how it felt to us. It was always called “Pumpkins United,” because when we were talking about this, we were thinking of a name for the tour and we’ve been like “okay let’s do something so people get that we’re united” because it was not a reunion tour whatsoever, it’s a united thing with all seven members, so we came up with this “Pumpkins United” thing. In the ongoing tour, we were sitting at some airport and we asked our management whether we can just call it HELLOWEEN in the near future because it just feels like a complete band, we don’t want to call this “Pumpkins United” anymore because now it’s clear that we’re united. So, it was kind of logical when we finished the album, that this is the beginning of a new era, that this feels like a real band again after touring and going through the recording process. Yeah, so that’s why it’s called “Helloween.”
Now, having three guitars, three singers, and also a bunch of songwriters in the band, has that drastically changed your songwriting process or did that open any new doors for you guys?
Sascha: Not very much new doors in the perspective that, of course, more members, more energy, and I would say that the vocal abilities alone that we now have with these two amazing singers and then also Kai singing, there’s so much character in all these voices, and that’s a force you just can’t stop. It’s something very, very nice to have. We have had that before as well, as HELLOWEEN was always a band with a lot of songwriters and that’s actually a big plus because that makes your work more long-lasting, I think, and more diverse.
I watched another interview today with Andy Deris, where I heard that you guys did the recordings in an analog way. I was wondering if that was something you decided after you had your producer coming to the shows, wanting to create kind of a nostalgic and energetic sound to the album?
Sascha: You know, the thing is, nowadays when you’re listening to metal albums… actually, the whole music business and especially in subcultures, it’s very hard with the deals the bands get, nowadays. They want to record the albums very quickly and they do a lot of stuff at home, which results in something generic sometimes. You listen to different bands and a lot of things sound the same. Of course, not everybody is in that position to go through the struggle of recording in an old-school way, because it takes more time. It’s a much more time-consuming process, instead of just opening up your laptop and playing for your audio interface. For an album like this, where there is so much focus on and so much support as well, because we’ve been planning for that for a while, we just took more time, and then we thought like “okay, well, if everybody runs into that direction, we should run it into the opposite direction,” to make it a little bit more special. What we also wanted to have was an old school vibe, because, of course, a lot of people would expect something like “Keeper of the Seven Keys,” having this type of vibe in there because Michael and Kai are in the band, but at the same time, we didn’t want to sound outdated, so we took a lot of time to combine all that. We recorded drums on tape, for instance, and we use old amplifiers from the ’80s, and lots of gear… like for guitar stuff, lots of gear from the ’80s. My guitar effects were originally from ’85 and ’86 or something like that, so we wanted to have that vibe, which is kind of lo-fi sometimes, but at the same time we were using a lot of tools from the digital world too, and combined all that. That makes the album sound modern, but with a classic vibe.
I know that you are a producer too; was it also fun for you to do this the analog way?
Sascha: We just didn’t have the time before, as I said. Nowadays, bands go on tour and they record albums and go back on tour. Normally you would have like 2-3 months’ time for recording an album and we’ve been there. We have to do it that way as doing it the other way, it’s very time-consuming. For instance, if you want to record on tape, you have a technician come over to measure in the tape and making adjustments and all this stuff, it’s very time-consuming… recording guitar to real amplifiers and real old analog or digital equipment takes time because you have to record all that in real-time. Then, when you fucked up something, you have to go back and do it all over again, that’s how it works. It’s very time-consuming, but it’s worth it. It makes your recording sound special and I really believe that, so it’s a lot of struggle and it’s time-consuming, but it’s worth it.
Do you feel that, in a way, digital will never be the same as analog?
Sascha: I think they’re getting there. I mean, nowadays… I don’t want to get too nerdy here, but going into the recording process, there are great tools out there and it makes sense that it’s out there because if you’re a starting musician, you don’t necessarily have the money and the time to record it, like in the old days. There’s no chance to do that unless you have a lot of time to do that. I’ve been there with my solo project, you don’t get lots of money to record an album. You have to do everything yourself, so you have to be quick. If you have the time, you can do it very in a very time-consuming way, but if not, all these tools make sense, and it’s getting very close, you know. A little thing… I have a big heart for old synthesizers, so I’m collecting old analog synthesizers from the ’80s, and I know some software which emulates that and it’s so close. Of course if I would be 15 years old, starting to write my first songs or whatever, I would use that. Nobody can afford all this analog real stuff, you know, I couldn’t when I was very young and so it makes sense. Or if you’re just having quick ideas, sometimes I use my iPad and record quick ideas, it makes totally sense. Can it beat it? I’m not sure, I think in days where people are streaming, I think it’s so close to the real thing, but what you can’t beat is the vibe and the way of writing and recording. When you’re doing it the old-school way… because there have been things that you can’t reproduce on a computer, you can save that and recall it any time, so it will be always the same. Also the reaction of those so-called plugins are always reacting the same way, but with analog gear, you don’t have that. There’s a lot of trial and error sometimes and as I said, sometimes you fuck up something and you think like “nah I want to do it again,” then the producer says, “wow, but it was so great, I like the feeling, let’s keep it!” In the digital world, you don’t do that, you go in there and you’re listening with your eyes and you’re trying to make it perfect. That’s what you basically can hear now in a lot of music nowadays, it’s gotten so technical and everybody wants to be so perfect and we’ve been kind of searching for the imperfection because that makes you more human.
Yeah, exactly. Now, in the same interview, I understood that you kind of also wanted to recreate Ingo’s drum sound in the album. What is the story behind that? Did you want to have him on the album in spirit?
Sascha: Yes, it was Daniel‘s idea, because he did this great drum solo during the tour, where he would have some old recordings… videotape recordings of Ingo playing a drum solo. So he came up with this idea to have a battle between him and Ingo, to honor him, because if we do a reunited HELLOWEEN band, he said that Ingo was a big and had a big influence and impact on him, and he wants to integrate him into the show. Also later, he came up with this idea to have him in some sort of a spiritual way, as you said, on the album. So, he thought like, is there any drum kit left, I mean, there must be some drum kit left and then he found this friend of Ingo, who stored away his drum kit, so Danny came up with this idea, “hey I want to record with his drum kit, that would be actually nice,” and that’s what they did. Also, I think that kind of also triggered Charlie a little bit to say, okay, but if you do it that way, let’s go the old-school way of recording tape.
That’s a really nice way to have him kind of “featured” on the album, really cool! Now, according to the press release, you’re the main songwriter of “Best Time.” So, it’s also a good opportunity to ask about that track, I guess. What can you tell fans about that song and do you still remember what the first thing was in the song that you came up with?
Sascha: Yeah, first of all, it’s a very uplifting song. It has this… it’s not like this party all night long song, but it’s more uplifting in a way of leaving the past behind and moving forward, giving you more strength, but it has to have a little bit of darkness in that track, because it’s about the past as well, leaving the past behind. At the same time, it’s uplifting and I just came up with this guitar riff first, and then I started singing and instantly… basically with my voice on it, if you would listen to the demo version, it sounds very much like a Billy Idol song. So, it has this driving force behind the riff and the drums and everything. I thought it would be a great song to drive in a car and listen to at full-blast. You know, girl leaving her evil ex-boyfriend, packing her stuff, throwing it in the car, starting to drive, turning on the radio, and then the song comes up because she’s leaving the past behind. That was the initial thought of the song, and then I kind of left it open so when we… we always meet to play [songs] to each other, or demos. So, this was the only song I didn’t sing on first, I was like “okay, I will sing for them the chorus, so they know how the chorus goes, and see if this catches them,” but I kind of wanted to leave it open. So, I thought it would be actually because it’s like in that line of “Future World” and “I Want Out,” in that musical way. I thought maybe it’s a song that Kai wants to work on further because Kai wrote “I Want Out” and “Future World,” so I thought maybe let’s leave that open. I played it to the guys and instantly Kai thought like, “it’s a very cool song. I think I want to do something with it,” which unfortunately never happened, but Andy, at the same time, thought like, “wow, it’s a great song, maybe I have some idea for that as well,” and I was like okay well you know, here it is, you kind of have it. Then, Andy came up to me at one point said, “hey, I really liked that song, is it finished? Do you have your vocals?” and I told him, yeah, well, I’m going to record vocals for you, and then he said that maybe he has a good idea for the verse. Then I was like, you know what, let’s do it. I will not record my vocals, I will just record the chorus line because of course that’s fixed. And I have a pre-chorus and a verse, let’s try something out, tomorrow we don’t go through the pre-production, we meet in my hotel room and we get started. It took us just one hour, he just came by, I grabbed the guitar, played the song, and then we tried some things, and then we arranged the whole verse. After one hour, we were done. It was such a quick thing, he streamlined the song very much because it was a bit longer and he said like wow that’s a perfect live song, let’s make it as compact and short as possible. Then, we did it, and then, in the end, he was standing at the door, turning around and saying that was actually fun. We never did it that way before. Before, we would just use the internet and sending ideas and whatsoever, but this time we had this pre-production going on, the band was in the studio, and he and I, we would meet in person and try things together and that was really fun. It was really cool. I think it gave the song, a special vibe, and then, of course, we have different singing on it. In the end, they even kept my vocals in there, they were like… at one point, Charlie called me up and Andy, they were saying, “Hey listen, we’ve been just listening to the tracks, you’ve recorded for that song, and we kind of like what you did on the chorus, and the middle part. It’s actually sounding really cool, and do you mind if we keep that?” So, whether Andy, Kai, or Mike are singing that, it’s your voice, are you fine with that?” and I’m like, well, of course, it’s kind of gimmicky for the fans to guess who is singing that. So, it was fun for me to do it that way. It was planned differently but, it just turned out last minute that way.
I guess sometimes experiments like that work very well.
Sascha: Totally, and with HELLOWEEN, you can do something like that. You know, of course, IRON MAIDEN does have three guitars but could you imagine there being a second, singer in IRON MAIDEN, even three singers or four singers? I just kind of like that with HELLOWEEN we can do everything we want to do because the band has such a variety in the back catalogue, you know… so many different albums with different styles and so many members went through the band, so of course you have a big variety and that’s kind of cool. It just reminded me of the band TOTO. You know, they totally use that in their radio hits, it’s always different singers, because at one point Steve Lukather would sing and then, another point, it’s Bobby Kimball, and then you have all these different singers, but it’s the same band, and you could instantly recognize oh that’s TOTO, but with different singers and I kind of like it. It shows the people even more how united a band is.
Luckily it seems like HELLOWEEN fans are also super open to things like that! Anyway, I also noticed that there were some Easter eggs in the cover art, which I thought was pretty cool for fans. Was the idea to give the cover art that “best-of album”-feeling you talked about earlier?
Sascha: Yeah, we wanted to have this reflected on the artwork as well. And then also we wanted to go through all the eras, which we did kind of with the songs as well, and we wanted to have that on the cover as well. Then, also choosing a real artist, not some photoshop guy doing some patchwork. We wanted to have a real artist doing art for our cover, so we asked Eliran Kantor, and this was a good choice because we just thought like in the old days when you had like a vinyl… You must know our fans, they love the physical product, our fans are very loyal and they tend to buy albums and then, you know they’re music enthusiasts and when you’re a music enthusiast, you just want to listen to the music, consciously and not – aside from doing something – you want to enjoy it. We’ve been remembering, in the old days when we had like a vinyl record in our hands, that you had great artwork. It just gave… the packaging, gave the music inside even more value. That’s what we wanted to do with such an album where you had so much focus. We wanted to deliver something really nice.
Cool! Yeah, it’s a really great cover. Now, I guess the future is still unclear a little bit but how do you see the future? When you think you guys might be able to go on the road again? Did you book any shows for 2021?
Sascha: It’s planned that we’re going on tour next year. But, as you said, it’s really hard to plan anything right now and I don’t want to speak too much about it because I’m kind of excited to go on tour, but you know, it would be a real bummer if we couldn’t do it. But if everything works out, we’re going on tour next year, together with HAMMERFALL. Let’s see how that goes.
Great! Looking forward to that. Anyway, it seems like our time is up. Do you have any last thoughts or maybe something that I didn’t ask that you want to share with fans?
Sascha: Well, actually, I’m very grateful at the moment to receive such good news and all the comments, really nice comments on the two singles we just released. Seeing that there is so much great reception from our fans and all the press has been very exciting. I just hope for all of us that this pandemic is soon over, that we can go back to the road and play live shows.