Within the world of power metal, the return of Kai Hansen and Michael Kiske to Helloween was as surprising as Alan Lancaster and John Coghlan kissing and making up with Status Quo’s Frantic Four. Or Iron Maiden readmitting Bruce Dickinson and Adrian Smith. Or even Led Zeppelin’s internet-busting comeback at the O2 Arena. As unexpected news goes, it was that big.
Helloween were formed in Hamburg in 1984 by guitarist/vocalist Kai Hansen, guitarist Michael Weikath, bassist Markus Grosskopf and drummer Ingo Schwichtenberg, although it wasn’t until lead singer Michael Kiske joined for their Keeper Of The Seven Keys albums – Part One in 1987, a follow-up 12 months later – that the big time really beckoned.
Then, in 1989, a war of words erupted when Hansen quit to form power-metallers Gamma Ray. Despite the subsequent firing of Kiske and hiring of his replacement Andi Deris – and Schwichtenberg’s exit due to drugs and mental health issues – Helloween and Gamma Ray each carved out comfortable, if unbalanced, careers.
Five years ago it was announced that Hansen and Kiske were returning as part of the seven-man Pumpkins United line-up, which also included Weikath, Grosskopf, Deris, current guitarist Sasha Gerstner, a member since 2002, and drummer of 16 years standing Dani Loeble. Following a triumphant world tour, Pumpkins United decided to make an album together. Now, that album has finally been released.
“It was a long ride to make this happen,” Kai Hansen begins. “Whenever Gamma Ray played with Helloween we drank some beers, and I felt it would be sad if we never did something before we got too old. What we had was too good to ignore.”
With the release of Helloween, Classic Rock is getting the lowdown from the returning Hansen and the one who never left, Michael Weikath. Weikath (or Weike, as he is mostly known) is an interesting guy with a quirky sense of humour. In conversation he uses the word ‘the’ in relation to his bandmates, as in “The Deris” and “The Sasha”. Hansen, by contrast, is more quietly spoken, although his words ring with forceful determination.
“Kai was a proponent of doing this, and the idea was discussed a lot before it happened,” Weikath says. “Hellish Rock [a 2007 tour on which Gamma Ray were ‘special guests’ to Helloween] helped to make it possible.”
Further back still, Weikath and Hansen had forged a verbal cease-fire during a lengthy discussion at the bar at a UFO concert in Hamburg. Today Weikath observes that it wasn’t helping anyone, and that “false narratives” were sometimes created by comments from reporters. Time, it appears, has proved to be a healer.
“I always paid attention to what Helloween did, and there was a healthy competition between the two bands,” Hansen admits. “Before I left, Weike and I had some issues. He was happy that I went because I was in his way, but time buried those feelings. We are very different as people, but I always respected Weike as an artist. The guy is a genius, he writes great stuff. After a while I really missed the squaring up to each other and what it created.”
The return of the equally strong-willed Kiske represented another huge question mark. Never much of a metalhead in the first place, after being sacked from Helloween he had dabbled in various sub-strands of rock. In 2000 he was snapped up for work with operatic metal supergroup Avantasia. Ultimately, it was this that began to steer him back towards Helloween.
“He had become a bit of a hermit and got away from doing live music, metal especially,” Hansen says. “But then Tobi [Sammet] got him out on an Avantasia tour. I was there too, and we talked a lot about the past and a possible future. It led to me jumping in on [Kiske’s band] Unisonic [in 2011].”
“Michael has become a very different guy,” Weikath considers. “He’s developed a sense of clemency. Back then, the same as me, he was a hard head who would never let anything go. We have come to realise that neither will do the other harm, and there’s a sense of trust.”
Still, the perils of ‘lead singer disease’ are all too well known, and with Kiske, Deris and Hansen competing for the microphone, Helloween have a potential triple-case scenario.
“None of that stuff is going on, and I’m surprised,” Weikath admits. “It helps that we have an effective management team that knows all of the characters. If necessary we turn to them. I wish we had had that before.”
There aren’t just multiple singers in Helloween. Being a seven-man band with three guitar heroes must present problems? There’s an English phrase: ‘Too many cooks spoil the broth.’
“We have the same idiom in German”, Weikath remarks. “Sure, there are times when it becomes too much, but things work fine. Leatherwolf have three guitarists, so do Iron Maiden.”
“Many bands have one lead animal and the rest just follow. With Helloween we have a bunch of alphas, and that can cause problems, but luckily we are older and wiser now,” Hansen notes.
When Classic Rock asks how the band share out the guitar solos these days, the response is a classic Weike-ism. “Hansen and I do the puppet theater,” Weikath replies with a straight face, “and Sasha has no problem playing like a rhythm guitarist underneath the whole thing.”
But what about the egos?
“It’s much less of a problem. Everyone has grown up,” he believes. “We will never be mature, but for somebody to throw a tantrum now would be considered bad behaviour. There were none of those old situations.”
Hansen explains that any baggage from the bad old days was jettisoned before the ‘go’ button got pushed: “Issues from the past were talked about between the older members, some controversial things that had to be addressed.”
However, for Hansen the excitement and joy of being back in Helloween were tinged with sadness. “I agreed to carry on with Helloween with a tear in my eye,” he says. “I was sad to leave Gamma Ray, but I had to close my personal circle.”
Helloween’s current incarnation (and new album) can be traced back to the first Pumpkins United gig, which took place in Monterrey, Mexico in 2017.
“We had rehearsed a lot but… man, we were shitting our pants,” Hansen says with a chuckle. “The first show of any tour is always shaky. But I won’t forget the sense of acceptance and happiness that came back from that South American audience. We went into things with no idea of what would happen or whether we might kill one another, but it became evident we could get along.”
The show’s success left them with a question: would they make an album with the Pumpkins line-up, or go back to the way things were before? The ensuing world tour, which included a spectacular show at London’s Brixton Academy, was so well-received that Helloween knew the stakes had been raised. They say the pressure acted as an incentive. Maybe even a challenge. Work began on a new album, with Hansen and Kiske re-inducted into the fold.
“As Mr Super-Critical, I annoy myself and others, and there’s no doubt that tension existed,” Hansen says. “We have a few songwriters here, all with slightly different styles. How do you pull everything together without sounding like a fucking samba band?”
Instead, Helloween interwove a flavour of each stage of the group’s career into the finished product.
“Yeah, but it was done intuitively,” Weikath claims. “We agonised over whether or not to include a ballad [it was eventually saved for the next album], and the final running order was actually put together by Markus Staiger, the boss of our record company, who really got involved.”
The songwriting credits are fairly evenly split, with Weikath, Hansen, Andi Deris, Sasha Gerstner and Markus Grosskopf all getting involved. It was a fruitful process.
“The Deris and me had an avalanche of ideas,” Weikath says, smiling. “We would discuss replacing a part of a song and ‘bam!’, another idea! They felt heaven-sent. When everybody submitted what they had, it was clear we were going to have an amazing album.”
Weike admits to feeling tension while working in the studio (with producer Charlie Bauerfeind and mixer Dennis Ward), but adds that it was a positive sort of tension. “There were a lot of silly jokes and breaking up with laughter, often at very serious moments.”
In a lovely symbolic reference, Loeble recorded his drum parts playing Ingo Schwichtenberg’s original kit.
“That was pretty intense, because we wanted Ingo to be sitting there,” Hansen says. “But during the tour, everybody had reached the conclusion that this was a new configuration of Helloween.”
The band dug out vintage equipment including an old Marshall stack last used on Walls Of Jericho, their full-length debut from 1985, and a Vox AC30 amplifier featured on 1998’s Better Than Raw. “We used old-school equipment but very modern technology to get the best of both worlds,” Hansen says proudly. Helloween has lots of hidden detail. Each repeated listen revealing something new…
“That was the intention,” Weikath says with a smile. “We tried hard for those magic moments. It felt like providence, as though there was some sort of divine guidance.”
Amazingly, the album’s 12-minute finale, Skyfall, was pretty much an after-thought. The band believed the record was a done deal until Hansen told them about his alien-themed epic, which doffs its hat to David Bowie.
“When I wrote Skyfall I wasn’t thinking of him at all, but when I took the demo to the producer he said: ‘I like the Major Tom thing’,” says Hansen. “It’s great to be compared to somebody so fantastic.”
The chasm between the personalities of Weikath and Hansen is highlighted by their individual responses to hearing the completed, almost 65-minute-long album for the first time.
“It was relief, really,” says Weikath. “But also pride. A lot of pride.”
“I’ll be honest, at first I couldn’t listen to it,” admits Hansen. “I didn’t like the sound or the mix. But gradually I found some distance. And now I’m happy that it doesn’t have that stereotypical modern production; we didn’t want to sound like everybody else.”
Both men also have different views on whether the album might prompt some non-Helloween fans to now get on board.
“Maybe,” Weikath replies optimistically. “This is one of the strongest albums we’ve ever done. We are guilty of being a classic heavy metal band, but it is freakin’ mature.”
“I cannot say. It could go either way,” Hansen shrugs. “We might attract some new people, but maybe it will scare away those that like the Keeper albums and nothing else.”
Nevertheless, from this point onwards Pumpkins Reunited is Helloween.
“We are going on forever, together,” Weikath predicts. “It’s the most suitable thing to do.”