Bursting out of Hamburg in 1984 - originally a quartet, fronted by singer/guitarist Kai Hansen - Helloween quickly commanded plaudits on the mid-80s underground for their hyper-energised take on epic, melodic heavy metal. After Kai decided to concentrate on guitar, the two Keeper Of The Seven Keys LPs (1987, 1988) introduced the heroic pipes of Michael Kiske, helping to make the would-be double-album an essential cornerstone in power metal history. In 1988, these West German Wunderkinder were opening the Monsters Of Rock festival at Castle Donington, and embarking on a world tour with Iron Maiden; by 1989 Kai was gone, and the band were soon embroiled in energy-sapping legal proceedings against their label.
With momentum fatally stalled, exacerbated by changing 90s trends, Helloween’s star waned. Michael Kiske left in 1993, replaced by Pink Cream 69 frontman Andi Deris, whose firm hand steadied the ship and guided the band back to greatness. As both men settle warmly into a three-way video chat with Hammer, each is keen to address the anxieties that went unresolved between them for decades.
“There was this tension that was created out of this situation,” recalls Michael. “Whenever I saw his face in a magazine it was always, ‘The guy took my job’, it was something painful. And it was the same the other way around; Andi was singing in Helloween, but he was also getting fire from the Kiske fans, so I guess when he saw my face it was like that also!” Andi smiles. “But the thing is, we never talked,” continues Michael. “It was just a feeling created out of the situation.”
For countless years, it was a Helloween fan’s dream to see Michael, Andi and Kai together onstage. When a seven-piece, double-frontman Pumpkins United tour was mooted in 2017, band management were quick to identify the bridges that needed to be rebuilt, and Andi and Michael never had one to start with. Nearly 25 years after one brief, awkward introduction, Michael was on a plane to Andi’s home studio in Tenerife on a bonding mission.
“Our managers said, ‘If you two don’t get along we don’t need to talk any further, because this is not going to work’. So I flew to Andi’s place for two weeks, and we spent time together every day. He brought me to the places he knows, and we talked about everything. It was almost like I knew him from a previous life, we connected right away. And it shows onstage - we’re not playing games, we really like each other, and that was beautiful. That was the essence of everything. Only life can write stories like that!”
Michael - who spent the 90s, 00s and 10s keeping busy with diverse solo albums, smaller-scale bands and Avantasia guest spots - is clearly relishing being back on the Helloween promo trail. While he bubbles over with expressive, eloquent enthusiasm, sometimes hitting emotive high notes to rival his singing voice, Andi sits nonchalantly puffing on a cigar and smiling placidly, happy to cede airspace to Michael’s garrulous intensity after 12 albums’ worth of press interviews, occasionally chipping in with concise profundities. Asked his perspective on the singers’ Canary Island bromance, Andi replies simply: “After two or three hours, it was like he’d been in my life forever.”
On the face of it, these two have most in common in Helloween’s seven-piece line-up; both men joined an established, successful band, replacing a popular singer. In a separate, later conversation, we asked the band’s founding frontman, Kai Hansen, to shine a light on some of the interpersonal dynamics behind these BFF co-vocalists. “They are very similar but different,” Kai ponders. “Andi is resting in himself. He is a master and mentor, he is pragmatic and always calm on the outside. I am sure he could be very angry as well but he would never show it, and is always nice and never loud. He is a great, super human being. Michi got more relaxed in his desire to be perfect; he is very focused on his voice and performing at an all-time high. He is an emotional person with a very sensible core inside. I just love him.”
Kai’s sweet words underline the genuine accord of respect and affection between these pivotal bandmates; it feels like the x factor behind the profound emotional power of the Pumpkins United tour and the exuberant rush of their new album, Helloween. The eponymous title is appropriate, as the debut of this extraordinary, definitive line-up; if Andi, Michael and Kai together onstage was the pumpkinhead’s dream come true, hearing them push each other to greater heights on the LP was surely beyond our wildest dreams.
The experience of making the album was perhaps strangest for Kai. Helloween was originally his baby, and after his departure he masterminded to glory another great German power metal institution, Gamma Ray. Assimilating into this new, expanded iteration of the band he started in his teens, full of assertive personalities and competitive songwriters, must have been tricky?
“It was a rather stupid feeling in the beginning - once you were a leader and the chief executive…” ruminates Kai. “But I am flexible, multi-tasking and able to adapt. Funnily enough, after a very short time I was happy about the set-up, it is a great thing not to be the helmsman anymore and to be a normal sailor, or even a pirate. My colleagues are all great, everything worked out wonderful and there is no problem whatsoever.”
What’s changed the most? “Maturity is the biggest difference,” Kai affirms. “None of us is a whippersnapper anymore, nobody has the need to pee down a tree, none of us have to bark too much anymore. All of us are much more relaxed and everyone is a team player. We are one unit and we’ve learned to be subordinate if necessary. We all have a lot of respect and trust in one another.”
For Kai and Michael, re-joining Helloween also meant healing some wounds with the band’s stalwart co-founding guitarist, Michael ‘Weiky’ Weikath, whose younger self had a notoriously fiery streak.
“I ran into Weiky in 2013 when I was on tour with Avantasia,” begins Michael, “and he said the perfect thing: ‘What have I done that you can’t forgive me for?’ That was his line! I was holding my breath and I noticed: there is no anger anymore. There have been years when I probably would have…” Michael clenches a fist, “but there was nothing like that. I said, ‘I think I’ve forgiven you a long time ago.’ And that was 2013, we weren’t talking about Pumpkins United or anything like that, but that’s when I noticed the anger had gone. From a life perspective, from a personal evolution of myself, I knew I needed to go through all that.”
Andi seems to have got the best out of Weiky: “Fortunately he was always a fan of my songs, so I had a good standing early on. If [Andi’s 1995 Helloween debut] Master Of The Rings hadn’t been a success, I would have been proven wrong with the songs I brought in, but fortunately the people were probably rather happy that the band was back to metal, and anything else was not so important!”
“It was the right thing for the band in those years,” asserts Michael. “I honestly think that you saved the band, because we were not functioning anymore after Kai left. Not so much because Kai is the band, but because the chemistry, the whole balance of the band, worked because Kai was there. That’s why I think my departure was necessary, because when you joined, you were exactly what this band needed. You were focused, you had songs, you didn’t want to fool around. I refused for years to listen to any of their stuff, but when I heard Master Of The Rings I understood why it was successful. I think the secret of why Helloween is still here today is because they created a different sound, but it sounded like Helloween - in a new way.”
This is a trick they’ve pulled off yet again with the Helloween LP. After an initial session in April 2019 to share new material, Andi says, “everybody was relieved that there were already enough ideas, so it looked like, ‘OK, this album’s going to be definitely good, if not great.’” After another three months of writing and honing, the septet were ready to enter the studio - but still without any songs by their two new/old boys. “I didn’t have anything,” admits Michael. “Next time you will!” insists Andi. “I didn’t even try to write a song,” continues Michael, sidestepping Andi’s insistence. “I thought there were more important songwriters, like Weiky, Kai, Andi… they’re more connected with the main sound of the band. In the 80s I was contributing some stuff that made it more diverse maybe, added some colour, but I never wrote Eagle Fly Free or anything like that, so I stepped out and let them do the stuff.”
For Kai, the process was more fraught. “I had so many ideas, but I had a hard time being confident,” he confesses. “I wanted everything to be super-special. I didn’t want painting-by-numbers, so I was so super-critical of my own ideas. If you go by the rulebook you end up with something OK, but I didn’t want something OK, I wanted something great.”
Kai achieved this in dazzlingly epic style with the album’s 12-minute closer - and audacious advance single, Skyfall. “With Skyfall, I was 100% sure that this was gonna be a good one, so I put all my efforts in there, and it was exciting to get into this kind of songwriting,” he notes. “Next album, it will be easier. Helloween have gone through so many phases, everything is possible, but I was very happy that the others were very creative and came up with a lot of good stuff. The album has a lot of diversity, but it barely has a calm moment. This is on 11 from front to back!”
HELLOWEEN IS OUT NOW VIA NUCLEAR BLAST