Inspired by X Japan

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German power metal pioneers Gamma Ray, founded by former Helloween’er Kai Hansen, have been in existence just as long as the giggling gal who eagerly whips out her ID at the bar for the first time. And just as the 21st birthday is a milestone in the life of a young American adult, it’s also a milestone for Gamma Ray’s members, who have undoubtedly seen themselves grow from young bucks into elder statesmen of the heavy metal world since the creation of Heading for Tomorrow in 1989. Drummer Dan Zimmermann, member since 1997, spoke to this Teeth scribe from his hotel room in Mexico on an off-date from the band’s world tour promoting To the Metal!, the awesome foursome’s first full-length since 2007’s Land of the Free II.

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People have to realize that a band can’t really stay stagnant.  There are bands out there who kind of stick within their comfort zone for their entire careers, and some people are really into that; they don’t want anybody to change from that strict formula.  So you’ve got the people who complain once a band progresses a little bit, but then there are also people who complain if you stay in the same spot.

We know that.  If you have one, like you said, formula, one successful album, there are some people, at least, who want you to do the same album again, over and over again.  They want to hear the same thing, and for us it’s just not possible.  I mean, we don’t want to copy ourselves too much.  For me, every album for us is also a milestone in the career.  It’s a time when, as a band, you felt good, you were in a good mood or bad mood or whatever.  It shows your emotion at this time, and from time to time, you have some negative waves, and you can hear this in the music because music is emotion, and we show our emotions.  And whatever we consider good songs will be on the album.  And whatever influence we have at that time — that album is growing — will flow into the album.  We have to accept this, that people might not like an album or some song.  This is natural.  But GAMMA RAY will never do the same album twice.  There’s no way.  With Land of the Free II, in my opinion, that album has nothing to do with Land of the Free besides the title, and besides the fact that the songs are quite, very positive, and it’s a positive atmosphere when we started to write that album.  But then the songs are totally different, and you cannot copy yourself, and we don’t want that.  We will never do that.

Exactly. When you guys are in writing mode, is there ever material that you want to put into an album — maybe there’s not room, maybe you don’t think fits — what do you do with that material?  Do you save it for another album, or scrap it, or put it on hold?

Yeah, the thing is that, when we have an idea, and when we start a production, we meet as four guys in the studio, and everyone shows his ideas, lets the other guys listen to it.  And then we rehearse the songs, of course, and then we see, maybe there’s one or two songs that doesn’t fit, they don’t feel too good.  Then you have the chance, as a composer, to rewrite the songs or make something different.  It has to fit to Gamma Ray, of course.  Or we say, ‘Okay, this song doesn’t fit the mood, it doesn’t fit to the album,’ so save it for a later production.  This happens from time to time.  For instance, Henjo [Richter], he always has like, four or five songs, but only two songs make it to the album.  And the reason for this is not because the songs don’t fit; the reason is because Henjo is very slow in recording his stuff, and it takes him forever to record two songs for an album.  This is the reason why he doesn’t get more songs on the albums.  So, this means that all the songs which are not on this album appear on the next one.  This happens, too.  So, it’s not that we have ten songs and these ten songs come to the album.  I mean, we are four song-writers, and there are so many ideas.  And it’s like democracy.  I mean, of course in the end, it’s Kai [Hansen] saying, ‘Yeah, no, I want that song,’ or, ‘I don’t want it,’ but we all, we talk about it as four guys, and if three guys are of the opinion that one song doesn’t fit so much, then it won’t be on the album, or on a later release.  That’s the way it is.

I see.  Another question I had for you, and I hope you don’t mind me asking…I think it was in late 2009, and correct me if I’m wrong, you left Freedom Call, and that was a band that you were a founding member of.  Do you mind elaborating on why you made the decision to leave the band?

Well, for me, it got too much to play in these two bands, because live activities of Gamma Ray got more and more, especially since the Helloween tour.  We’ve been on the road for one year — with breaks, of course — but it was [a] long, long ride, and Freedom Call activities got more too.  And for me, there came a point when it was not possible to coordinate both bands anymore.  I mean, the other guys, the Freedom Call guys, when I went on the road with Helloween, they told me, ‘Ah, we got [an] offer for a tour in France, and you are not there, what should we do?’  I cannot say, ‘I’m on the road, but you have to stay at home when I am not available.’  I cannot do that.  So, they decided to take a substitute for me, and yeah.  The year 2008 was really hard, always on the road, and in 2009, I told Chris [Bay] that it got too much to come back to Freedom Call and play in both bands.  It takes too much energy, you know?  I want to focus on one band, and of course I was a founding member of Freedom Call, because I started that band with Chris, together, but in the end, it was Chris’s band.  I mean, my heart beats for Gamma Ray, and of course, one other argument is that I make, also, my living with Gamma Ray, and with Freedom Call, this was not possible.  Because I make my living with music, and of course, you’ve got to get some money.  It’s definitely a reason [for leaving], but the main reason was energy.  Because when the Gamma Ray tour was over, Freedom Call tour was starting, and I had no privacy anymore, nothing.  I didn’t want that anymore.

Speaking about touring again, when you’re done touring, you said that you go back home on May 12th.  What do you do with your time when you get back home?  I know you guys have got more festivals, like you said, more touring, but what do you do when you get home to unwind, relax?

Yeah, first, of course, I have one week off to relax.  This is what I grant myself when I come back from a tour like this, jet-lagged and everything.  Then I will again start my lessons with my students, and I will also do advertising again, or help out in music schools as a drum teacher, and I have a lot of ideas on my little dictation machine, a lot of ideas which I sang for vocal lines, and when I’m at home, I will sit myself down and make these ideas listenable, and maybe create some new songs, and yeah…preparing for the festivals.  There’s always stuff to do.

So, it sounds like you stay busy and try to stay creative and focused while you’re at home.

I mean, being creative, you cannot force this.  I cannot say, ‘Oh, I come home and then I want to record some songs.’  You can say that, but you cannot force creativity.  Creativity happens sometimes on tour, because usually when I have an off-day, and for instance, like in Mexico City, I go out and see some places.  And then I sit there and watch the scenery, or whatever, or at a nice place where you can have a nice drink, and then all of a sudden, some ideas come, and then I build them in my mind.  As soon as I have my dictation machine, I sing the ideas down and I have all the ideas [where] I won’t forget them.  When I get home, then I can reproduce it.  The things I want to do when I’m at home, and when I have time.  And of course, I have family, and I will visit my family, and my drum students, of course.  I’m much focused on them.  I mean, when I’m at home, it’s not that I’m busy all the time.  I have relaxed time, then, over summer, so I don’t put too much stress on me.

That’s good that you’re getting some time to relax.  I think it’s interesting that you say that you go out and see places, and sometimes you’re inspired by that.  Can you think of any instances on this tour where you’ve taken…not a day trip, but a side trip to go see some scenery or something, and you’ve been inspired by something?

Yeah, not by scenery so much, but on this tour I’ve seen a DVD of that band X Japan, and it was a show from 1993.  I didn’t know X Japan before.  I’d heard the name, but I didn’t know what it was about, and I was totally blown away by their show.  I mean, it’s totally different from a Gamma Ray show; it’s perfect.  Like, when they played in the Tokyo Dome — sold-out show, big stage, and every little detail was planned and organized, but it didn’t seem like it.  It was not chaotic, in no way.  It was structured somehow, but it was great entertainment.  I love the guys, the way they looked, with their visual kind of hairstyles.  And I was totally impressed, and also inspired by, doing more movement on the drum kit, and not being so much focused on sitting there and playing their stuff.  Relax yourself, stand up and show yourself to the people, and communicate more.  Do something.  It inspired me a lot to not only play good, also to make more show.  To move, to move the body, so the people have something to look at, and I think that the whole band got me inspired by that show, by that X Japan show.  It was really magic.

Do you think that you have brought some of that into your live show since you’ve seen that?

Yeah, at least some.  Of course, we have not yet the financial possibilities to make a show like this, but for me, for myself, it was good to watch the drummer.  It was unbelievable what he was doing with his body while he was playing all that fast stuff, and it was really…then I started to make up my mind, ‘How do I want to look like on stage?’  I have some ideas to work on my outfit a little bit, to not only play with a black heavy metal t-shirt, to do something a little bit more stylish.  Of course, it has to fit to Gamma Ray. I mean, we are not X Japan; we know that.  But when you see that, you start making up your mind about, ‘What can I change?  How can I move, can I really make show, going crazy on the drum kit, without losing my control over what I’m doing?’  I think it has more influence than we might think, and we will see what happens on the next tour; it might show. We may be using some fireworks here and there, using different lighting effects, and we will see.  One thing we’ll figure out, if you take some time…there’s a lot of time where they let the people rest, then play again, but in this time in between, there’s always happening something, some music in between, classical, dramatic, melancholic music in between.  And this is what we learned, what I took out of it.  There’s got to be happening at least something if the band is not on stage, so the people don’t get bored.  There’s got to be music running.  And yeah, some aspects of the show really, we learned a lot from that.

That’s great to see that Gamma Ray, even at this stage, could be influenced by something like that.  That’s excellent.

I mean, it’s not that we think, ‘Our thing is the thing.’  I mean, of course we are convinced about what we’re doing, but why not open yourself to learn something.  I mean, especially if you don’t learn anymore, don’t get influenced, don’t get inspired from something, then this is really poor.  Then you get stuck; you do your same thing over and over again.  You’ve got to go with the time.  Gamma Ray music somehow it’s kind of old-fashioned music, and it will always be like this.  We don’t want to change that.  But, the entertainment gets more and more important for us, not only playing good.  I mean, as a band, we had a couple of years — we needed a couple of years to play good together as a band — now we have that, and now we should focus more on the entertainment.  People should get entertained, and they expect you to play well.  This is what was an influence from the X Japan DVD.

Well, that’s great.  The only other thing I wanted to ask, it looks like in March, Henjo had surgery on his eye for the detached retina.  How is he doing now?

Well, I mean, he has to cover it quite well, so he has still problems with his left eye, but he can play, of course.  And it varies.  One day it’s good, and especially after the flights, especially the long-distance flights, he feels pressure on his eyes.  The doctor told him not to fly, but he has no other choice.  He’s better now.  It sounded heavier than it really was.  I mean, it was two days after the surgery, the operation, he could go home, and now he has to wear sunglasses because it’s too bright.  Sun is not good for the eyes.  And he takes care a lot, but he has to fly, and he didn’t want to let a different guitar player play the tour, and I can understand that somehow.  But he feels well; he’s in a good mood, but he only is slowly recovering.  The sight comes slowly back.

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  1. Commented by: Jodi

    Many thanks to Sara Robbins from the Gamma Ray Insurrection forum for info and ideas.

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