The Right Time: An Interview with Michael Kiske

Vocals / Guitar

Commentary on Michael Kiske's time in Helloween, eventual departure in 1992, and years away from metal music is becoming a bit like claiming Metallica sold out when they made a video or shouting 'Free Bird' at a concert. And about as useful.

For 20 years now it doesn't matter what he has or hasn't done or been involved in, the first question from everyone is either about leaving Helloween or his rejection of metal during the '90s. Even now, after he appeared on a metal album for the first time since 1993 with Tobias Sammet's Avantasia in 2001 and has been on every album since, returned to rock music with SupaRed and Place Vendome, formed Unisonic, and eventually took the stage again for the first time in 17 years on their 2010 world tour, people still ask him about it when everything that's going to be said has been said, and labels still love to play on it. Especially after he recruited his former writing partner and fellow ex-Helloween member Kai Hansen as Unisonic's new lead guitarist.

Unisonic's first release, some three years in the making, was the Ignition EP previewing tracks from their self-titled debut album. The EP comes in a digipak, cellophane wrapped, and on the outside of the cellophane is a sticker which reads "Ex-Helloween, the two heavy rock legends reunited". Michael doesn't blame them, but would rather everyone just left it alone; "I hate that stuff, but I know why labels do that. Luckily it's on the outside so when you rip it off it's gone and you don't think about it, but I don't blame them, they just want to sell records."

Likely part of the reason everyone feels justified in bringing up the subject of Helloween is Michael doesn't shy away from talking about it, sometimes whether he's asked to or not. It's clear that beyond the war of words which occupied so many column inches in the early '90s, the period of time between leaving Helloween and starting Place Vendome had a profound effect on him, and he now relates many other topics back to that time, during which he recorded two solo albums, both of which went largely unnoticed. "I wasn't really interested [in people noticing the albums]. I did what felt right, but I was interested in other things. There were phases where I wasn't singing for years. No singing at all! I think that says almost everything. How Helloween ended, I was very disappointed by that. Certain things they said about me was just not true; they were just using it to convince fans and stuff. I was very frustrated by that. Then I did the record how I thought it would be honest to do, I was not trying to fake Helloween, I thought it was silly to do that. It was good for me to have that time off. I was reading books, I was dealing with things that I would not have dealt with had I been on tour and stuff. It was great! For a long time I wasn't really interested. Even when I was with Avantasia, I was not going on tour with them. I only did it because I liked Tobi [Sammet]. And when the Unisonic thing came up it was just the right time. It's always the thing with timing, sometimes things are just right."

“ There were phases where I wasn't singing for years ”
- Michael Kiske

And even since then, everything Michael has been involved in has been a "project" rather than a proper band. Place Vendome never toured, Avantasia did but Michael didn't take part until 2010, the excellent SupaRed didn't last long and never played live, various contributions for other artists often only amounted to one song here or there, and although he recorded another two solo albums in 2006 and 2008, he never toured his solo material either.

People even started to wonder about Unisonic. The band were announced, then booked a few shows with no material available, then when it came to playing, they hadn't progressed very far with their new songs, and since the band had two members of Place Vendome in it, they decided to construct a set of mostly that material, plus one new one and some old Helloween. After those shows another year-and-a-half passed with no sign of new songs. What ended up making the difference was the arrival of Hansen after the pair played together again on the Avantasia tour.

"He speeded it up! We couldn't get to the point where we were totally satisfied. We had lots of material but something was missing. Halfway down the road I was thinking we need an extra guitar player, another creative force. Someone with edge, someone that is adding the last bit. Even then I wasn't thinking about Kai, I was thinking about another friend of mine. But that didn't happen, then the moment he [Kai] came up I thought 'bing! That's perfect!'

"We had good material, I mean don't get me wrong, it's not that it was shit and Kai saved us, but he's that last bit. Star Rider for instance, was there apart from the chorus. We had a chorus but it was not so strong, it wasn't the peak of the song. He didn't like the chorus and in about 20 seconds he wrote the new chorus, and now it's one of the best songs on the album. That's how a band works! One guy brings a song to that level, the other guy has another idea. That's the whole meaning of being in a band and you're better with them than without them. We didn't know what to expect, but it was just great. The chemistry was great, especially him and Dennis [Ward, bass], they have a great creative back-and-forth going on."

But with a band comprised of men who are used to being very hands-on with the recording process, particularly Ward who produces other bands' records when he's not playing bass, Kiske found that his methods of songwriting and recording, which basically involve him doing all of his parts on his own in his private studio, didn't sit entirely easily with the rest of the band. "They didn't like that very much, but I need to be free. If I feel like I want to do it with Dennis I do it with him, but I know what I'm doing anyway. I have to do my own thing and I think as a singer you've got to be yourself! I would always tell a singer, or a guitar player, you have to have your identity. Sometimes it's great to have a producer there, if you need it. Most of the stuff they were very satisfied with. They had other ideas, so they'd send it back and I'd change things, but the main thing is I want to work on my own time schedule. I don't want 'tomorrow at 4 o'clock we do vocals.' Well, what if I don't feel like singing tomorrow at 4 o'clock? I'm over doing it, of course I'd still be able to do some vocals, but if I feel like doing it at 10 o'clock in the morning, when I just feel the vibe, and go over and do it. If it doesn't work out, I go and play some PlayStation or whatever, but I like that, because I like to catch moments.

"It was strange to them. Kai understood it, he has done vocals on his own and stuff, but they were just afraid that they couldn't have any influence in terms of ideas. But I let that happen. I just said 'if you have any ideas just throw them over and I'll try it again.' I don't like to be controlled, this is my main concern. I can get really angry if I feel like someone is trying to put me in a box or trying to tell me what to do singing-wise. I think it's artistically wrong to do that. If you don't feel the song and then do it the way you feel, how can anyone else feel it? Everyone has his own opinion, so I totally understand whenever Kosta [Zafiriou, bass] says 'I like it, we do this or that,' that's all fine, but it's not my job to be anyone's puppet."

That subject, of sincerity in creating music and not being pulled in certain directions by others, or performing a particularly way just because it looks good or fits a mould, comes up often when more experienced musicians are involved, and Kiske believes everyone should have more faith in their own role in the band and not bow to commercial whim or other external pressures. "There's no personality! And actually it is something that is so common. It's problematic for me to understand – and this is not being a destructive ego – but when you're a guitar player, how should I know better than you how to be you? I mean, I'm not talking about ideas. If someone has an idea for a different melody line, that's a different story, you've got to be open to that, but when it comes to performance, you've got to do it the way you feel it. Because I think the key to authenticity is to be yourself, and a grown-up band doesn't take that away from you. They make sure you have your space where you function. That makes a good band, when every individual can be himself, but also create something."

Those attitudes in modern bands are not being helped by the hightened desperation of record companies to make products as commercial as possible in order to sell enough copies to combat the ever-present downloading problem. This is a subject close to Michael's heart because it is genuinly threatening to end the production of Sammet's Avantasia albums. "People should think about that. I mean, I like record productions, but I like quality record productions. We got a lot of money from the record company, so we were able to do everything we wanted to do with this record, like it was mastered in New York by the guy who did the last Coldplay, so we didn't save money! We spent money making this a really decent record production, but the less people support records, the more we'll lose this culture. I don't like live replaces records. I think it's a different world, and if anyone appreciates record production, support it! So if Tobi has to stop doing Avantasia because he can't afford it because of downloads, that's a good example of losing music. And it's a huge thing because when he brings in all these people they all want paying. How should he pay for it? I don't believe in laws. I don't believe that you'll get the downloading and illegal copying thing out of the world with laws, and scaring them or anything. They have to want it for themselves and the only way is by getting it in their head. They have to want to support certain records, at least. Certain artists. If they don't want to, they can't cry if they disappear."

“ the key to authenticity is to be yourself ”
- Michael Kiske

And where that other world is concerned, performing live, Unisonic's next move is uncertain. 2012 hasn't seen them play very many shows since the album arrived, and so far the most fitting opportunity to put some more extensive stage time behind it hasn't materialised, and that may come in the form of supporting a bigger band for the time being. "In the end it's a financial thing. You need a promoter being interested in you. It's always the promoters, the people who make the concerts. They calculate it. If we're interesting enough for a band, if we're interesting for them, and it's something that we think could fit us too - it wouldn't be with a band like KoRn or Slipknot, that wouldn't fit - supporting a big band just means you have a shorter time to make an impression. Playing for 45 minutes is easy. It's not bad to make yourself rare."

In actual fact what's slightly rare about that idea is a band comprised of musicians as experienced as Unisonic, particularly one with such revered members in the community as Kiske and Hansen, wouldn't normally concede to opening slots for anyone but the biggest bands. "I was never like that. I have my ego, but I believe in things like trust, being modest, devotion, these kinds of things. I believe in that stuff. To me it's just stupidity if you think you're better than anyone else just because your face is on a magazine. Things like what happened with Whitney Houston, why did she take these drugs? Because she couldn't deal with having to be a god, you know? Look at Elvis. I love Elvis but he couldn't deal with it either! Not being allowed to be a human being. This is a different league, but it's the same sort of thing. The only way to stay healthy is to not take it too seriously, and not take yourself too seriously."

"I mean, I'm singing, what is such a big deal with it? I'm not saving the world with it..."

Written by Andy Lye
More: Interviews,

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