Sole Survivor(s)

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Not quite at Steve Harris level when it comes to notable European bass players, but just as valuable, Helloween’s Markus Grosskopf has been the band’s perennial bedrock since their 1984 formation. Thrust into what was seemingly a never-ending tug-and-war between huge egos (see: Kai Hansen, Michael Weikath, Michael Kiske, and later, Roland Grapow and Uli Kusch), Grosskopf emerged as the band’s de-facto mediator, the sole level head in a band that always teetered on self-destruction. Even after the near-crippling departure of Hansen in 1989, the acrimonious split with Kiske in 1993, and ugly divorce with Grapow and Kusch in 2002, Helloween is still standing, thanks in large part to Grosskopf, and singer Andi Deris, who is far and away the longest-tenured vocalist in the band’s history.

The new year brings forth Straight Out of Hell, the band’s 14th studio album. It effectively bridges the gap between The Time of the Oath and Better than Raw albums, while keeping in tune with the ‘Weenie’s penchant for creating fun, melodic, and catchy-as-can-be power metal. It’s a formula that has kept things fresh for a band that nearly 30 years into its existence, is finally enjoying the fruits of its yesteryear, including those cherished Keeper of the Seven Rings albums. The new album was to be a point of discussion with Grosskopf, but the allure of the old days (both good and bad) were too much to resist…

The new album is still heavy, but it’s also melodic and positive. The best of both worlds, perhaps?

For me, it’s just the way it turned out, you know? We had all the songs and if they sound like they sound, we won’t push them in another direction. They need to have their own life. When I do an album and listen to it later on…it’s still so close. It needs maybe a half of year. It needs different ears so it can start to sound normal. Just because I’m coming out of the process where I listened to the guitars and drums without the keyboards, without the vocals…I still hear it in little sections. We still need time to hear it as a big picture [laughs].

Lots of songs seem to be working well. “Far From the Sun” is one, “Church Breaks Down,” and “Fire Make Fly” is another. What songs are sticking with you?

“Nabetea” is a great theme; it’s a little classical piece Andi wrote about ancient history. I like it a lot because it has to do with freedom, which is something Helloween has always written about, like “Eagle Fly Free.” This “Nabeatea” thing is an amazing story about this nation years and years ago, and they were trying to do a democracy in the early days, which was interesting. It’s based on a real thing, actually. We’ll put it into the set to see how it works out, you know?

Andi sounds great on it, too.

Yeah, and if you listen to the ballad (“Hold Me In Your Arms”) you’ll notice he’s doing some different things, too. There is a lot of stuff on the album that is pretty different from song-to-song. I like that range of variety that we put on.

Plus you have “Asshole.”

Well, that one had to be said, you know? [laughs] They won’t play that one on American radio, won’t they?

I very much doubt it [laughs] Moving along, the recording sessions, what are they like these days? When I spoke to Weike about them, he said they were very much relaxed, that you guys were the model of efficiency. Do you see it that way too?

It’s pretty easy. When the songs are done, you know what you’re going to do most of the time. There are some parts in the studio that when you listen to the drums or guitars, I might change something here and there. The hardest is part is when you start and you expect to write some tunes, and you don’t have a single note yet [laughs]. You’re standing right on a big mountain, thinking you need a couple of tracks in a few weeks or months, then you start thinking it’s never going to work out. Then you finally start the very first song, and do some lyrics for it, then you write into it. Recording is like…I wouldn’t say it’s easy, but it’s better than standing at the bottom of an epic mountain.

Once we hit 2014, you will be celebrating your 30th anniversary. You have been there from the start, so, have you given this any thought?

Well, decay might start soon [laughs]. It’s being going on a long time, being in a band. It’s still not over…it keeps getting better.

Those early days when it was just the four of you: Ingo [Switchenburg], Kai, Weike, and you. What were they like?

I can remember the very first time we came over to the States. You couldn’t imagine it. That was the time I called the “big hairspray.” We were going to LA and going to the all the bars like the Rainbow. You’d be on the toilet, thinking you were in the ladies room [laughs]. That was just a point of time in the mid-80’s and late-80’s when heavy metal and hard rock was very big, like MTV, they came over for each fifth day and supported us big-time. It was great for us to go there. With everyone was happening, coming from Germany, we did a couple of tours in Germany, then Europe, then over to the States for a couple of months and doing all the American-styled things. It was a great experience. You can imagine coming there and doing all of those things at 22 years-old…it was crazy.

There’s a Youtube video shot in Minnesota on the first Keeper tour. Have you seen it?

Yeah, yeah. I like seeing the old stuff; it’s a great memory. Falling back into good memories…I like it. Kind of romantic.

You wouldn’t know it by your demeanor on stage, but that was around the time things went south with Noise Records and Kai started thinking about leaving.

It’s been some very, very good times, but we had some very rough and bad times, too. That’s what you have to go through to be in the end, how can you say…the guy you are. Everything that happened is a part of you, and it forms you. It’s not always funny when you’ve been doing it for as long as us, because we’ve had record company trouble, and members leaving. I remember the times when nobody wanted to hear us because they thought Helloween was finished, but then we came back with Master of the Rings.

The time from Keeper Part II to Pink Bubbles and the three-year layoff. With the legal troubles in mind, were you worried the band might never make another album?

That was never the point. It was just a matter of thinking of how to do things differently. When Kai was leaving, it was like “We have to find a new guitarist!” And we did that, but then we had all of this record company trouble, and we couldn’t record anything because we weren’t allowed to do anything under the name “Helloween” for one and-a-half years. But we always dealt with it well, and like, “Let’s carry on. What we started, we won’t give up.” We never thought about stopping it.

And you were always the middle man, too. On one side, it was Weike and Roland, then you had Ingo and Kiske on the other side. How hard was it to navigate those personalities?

Then you had the problem with Ingo, who was in very bad shape [Switchenburg committed suicide in 1995 – ed]. There were a lot of strong characters in the band, and we always had fights and things, but we always had good times, too. If somebody changes his mind and wants to do something different, he will do it without Helloween or do something else, or go with Helloween and do what is right. There were always decisions about those things and sometimes it wasn’t easy. You’re thinking, “My God, what’s going on this time?” Things got out of control sometimes.

And you were the mediator.

[laughs] Sometimes it was havoc, and sometimes it was like, nobody would really listen and everyone wanted to do things with their own heads. It’s been a very rough job sometimes [laughs]. Sometimes you had to make decisions, and they weren’t always fun. It’s like you go to work and you have this chief and when you’re told what to do, it’s easy. But this is a business and we have to decide for ourselves. The decisions you make are not always…you have to decide something that may hurt other people, but that’s the way it works.

It makes me wonder what the sessions for the Chameleon albums were like. I read stories that they were bad, and for a lack of a better term, “interesting.”

These recordings were very strange. It was a record where a couple of members wrote individual songs for themselves. It wasn’t such an album we did together. It was just like a bunch of solo album, album tracks from the members. They didn’t fit together. It’s an interesting album, but it wasn’t an album we worked together [on]. It sound great and good, but the songs are different, which isn’t a bad thing. At the end of the day, in a band like Helloween, none of those albums are sounding the same, it’s good to have an album like Chameleon in the back catalog. If you see it in the big picture, it’s still an interesting album.

Moving a bit forward, do you remember your first encounter with Andi?

Yes, of course. It was in Hamburg. With his former band, Pink Cream 69, they were doing recordings and we were living here, and I visited and gave them some pot and stuff [laughs]. We treated them like guests, then we were drinking beer and having fun. We learned each other and got to know each other, just staying in Hamburg with the boys.

Those first rehearsals with him, what were they like?

He came in very quick. The freshness of the Masters of the Rings album, which I very much like. He came in and we were already rehearsing for that album. He had some ideas for the album and some of our stuff was ready to go, and then we didn’t have much time. He came in and we were working on it already, and after a couple of weeks, we went into the studio. We had some great times working on those tracks very quick. It got something back from what we were missing from the two albums before, and that’s what I love album it.

He came in and at the time, Helloween were trying to find a way back to Helloween. He came in as an outsider, having a great overlook about what Helloween was supposed to be. He came in and reminded us of what we really are. It made a lot of things much clearer suddenly.

That was your career turning point. Have you ever thought from purely a hypothetical standpoint of what you would have done had Andi not come along?

I don’t know…I couldn’t see anyone else! We were friends already. He followed Helloween’s career and knew a lot about Helloween’s career and the last two albums we did. He said, “When I come in, Helloween has to be Helloween again!” I couldn’t see this with a stranger, you know? That was the right thing to do.

It’s interesting to think of how your career is divided into segments. You have the Kai era, then Kiske, and Andi, who has lasted nearly 20 years as your singer. Few bands have a history like that.

Everything we did…after Masters of the Rings, we had this feeling that if we can do this again, we can do anything. If we can get this machine re-started, there’s nothing to stop you.

Are you looking forward to hitting the road with Gamma Ray again?

Oh yeah, of course. We did the Part I of the tour a few years ago and now doing it again. We have a little jam with Kai somewhere in the set. It’s very good for the people; Kai plays like, more than an hour and we play an hour and-a-half or more. I think it’s a good thing for the people.

It’s always cool to see the two bands onstage together at the same time.

It is! People have always wanted to start this “Gamma Ray Camp” versus “Helloween Camp” and those two sides…but we thought it was cool to put this together to make those people shut up. It’s fun and something different. People seem to like it. It’s very inspiring, actually.


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