Armed with a new CD, Rabbit Don't Come Easy, the band prove that they haven't stopped being crazy.
An interview with Michael Weikath by Jedd Beaudoin
When one daily hears musical imitators (regardless of whether those imitations are flattering), it's sometimes hard to get a fix on what the originators are doing. Had you told me in circa 1987 that I'd be sorting out the question of what to think of the new Helloween album 16 years later, I'd have laughed. But, upon the few initial spins of Rabbit Don't Come Easy (out on Nuclear Blast), I felt a little confused. It had been, after all, three years since the last Helloween album and there'd been plenty of good speed metal since then and as good as Rabbit Don't Come Easy was, I couldn't help feeling odd about it. Why were they still doing this almost 20 years after their debut?
But then, upon third or maybe fourth spin, it hit me: Helloween are still at it because they love playing the music they helped pioneer (and a few others along the way, dig the slight reggae turn in "Nothing To Say") along with Grave Digger and Rage back in the day. They love it and they're good at it. So why stop.
Indeed, Rabbit Don't Come Easy (think about magic) is a pretty damn good album from this metal institution, replete with the arms-aloft speed numbers you'd expect ("Just A Little Sign"), the hooky, infectious tracks that will no doubt soon become concert favorites ("Hell Was Made In Heaven," "Don't Stop Being Crazy") and the splendid guitar lines of "Liar" and "The Tune," Rabbit Don't Come Easy is a reminder of all the magic Helloween have worked over the years and proof positive that there's plenty more left in them.
I caught up with guitarist Michael Weikath recently, finding him in the mood to talk about his passion for music, whether his own, The Beatles or Joe Cocker.
Visit http://www.helloween.org for more information on Weikath and the rest of Helloween.
Sea of Tranquility: Where are you calling from today?
Michael Weikath: Tennerife, Canary Islands, northwest of Africa.
SoT: I bet it's beautiful there.
SoT: Is that where you make your home these days?
MW: Yeah, yeah. I hang out here most of the time. If I'm not here, then I'm doing other things. Usually, I like being here because of the weather and the people and everything. Also, my home is my castle. I can do whatever I like here. [Laughs.]
SoT: What brought you down there?
MW: Andi [Deris, Helloween vocalist] came here, his parents did some vacationing here and then he called me and said, "It's a great place, maybe you'll like it as well." Things here are very cheap. Apartments, everything. So I thought I'd maybe give it a look. It seemed advisable to buy something here. I had the money, thanks to the High Live video and CD. We got in at the right time because prices increased down here dramatically. It was just the right time.
SoT: Is there a fairly large German population there?
MW: Fairly large? You could say that but [you have to remember that it's still a sparsely populated place]. But there are a lot of tourists who pretend not to know much Spanish. But it's not like Mallorca, where people decided to buy an island and make it part of Germany. Maybe in the south, you have the typical tourist thing: The island is divided into two parts because of the Tiede Mountains in the middle. So, you have to choose: Do you want to spend your vacations in the south, which is basically desert, filled with tourists and skyscrapers and so on or if you want to be in the north, where I am. Here, the vegetation is very nice, the people are very nice and cool. Occasionally, there are tourists here but they're mostly older people and they don't cause much upheaval. You won't find a lot of that loud, bad-mouthed tourist shit up here.
MW: Up here it's more like the Spanish community permits tourists to come. In the south, things are more or less in the tourists' hands and local people are pretty pissed off about that.
SoT: Do you speak Spanish?
MW: A little bit.
SoT: Was that necessitated by your having moved there or did you speak it before?
MW: I learned it at school. That's almost 20 years ago. But that's given me a base for what I actually have to apply here. The people here speak a different Spanish than on the mainland, they speak in more of a South American or Cuban way and they have ways of expressing themselves and words that might seem odd to some. To me, that's a little heavy but I do try to make my way through it and then, usually, when I do try proper Spanish, people say, "Eh?" even though it's technically right. I try.
I could go to the waiter here at the bar and simply speak German to him because he would understand me. But that's not what I'm here for. And I'm not entirely proud of being [a] German who comes along and subdues this little island and says, "I'm the master of things and you've got to speak German." That's not my way.
There's also a a cab driver I know now. This is a little town and after 10 p.m., they roll up the sidewalks and you can't get out. So it's good to know someone who can drive you around. Anyway, this cab driver is from Venezuela and, obviously, I have to speak Spanish to him. He doesn't know English or German, even though he listens to hard rock. I just gave him a copy of UFO's Strangers in the Night. He loves that.
SoT: You can learn a number of things by traveling and living outside your homeland, for sure. I lived in Poland for a time and I understand what you're saying about the language. Whenever I spoke what I'd learned from the textbook, I got strange looks. But music was truly a uniting factor. I mean, I could get into a cab and the driver would be listening to Queen turned up very loud and although I know he didn't understand the words, it seemed like he could attach some meaning to it, through the music. That amused me and usually made me feel more at ease. Have you had some experiences like that?
MW: No so much. But maybe I'm the wrong person to ask. I always try to find music from all over the world. I have Audion software on my computer. You can record streaming radio with that. So what I do is tune in to international radios. I go to Philippine radio stations and try to find something nice there. If I like it, I record it or, sometimes, I just go out and ask local people,wherever I'm playing, about their music. I was in South Korea and saw this two-person band, just a female singer and her keyboardist, and I asked them what the best bands and the greatest hits from the Philippines were. So, they wrote down the names of a few artists and I went to Audio Galaxy, when it still existed, and downloaded as much as I could of those artists. Some of them are very, very impressive. That's exactly what you're talking about. Music is its own language.
If there's only one track on a CD that somebody gives me, let's say the rest is crap, but if there's one good song, then my quality of life has changed for the better. The most recent example came from the bar where I sit all the time. There's this international Latino TV channel, mostly for that community but I know you can find it in America as well. There's a female pop singer [who appears on there often and she has a great song], something that maybe you would have heard in the '70s. So, when I saw her record advertised on TV, I wrote down the information (and I do this with many records) and then see if there's some way I can get my hands on of the music.
But I'm the wrong person to ask. [Laughs.]
SoT: [Laughs.] Were you always like that with music?
MW: Yes. When I was young, I spent a lot of time in front of my mother and father's stereo equipment. In, maybe, '64, I started going there and flipping through stations. Basically, I'm still doing that with my Mac. But I would listen to that music, although I couldn't record it. Years later, though, my father explained to me how to operate the tape recorder. My parents actually had one of the first Grundig tape recorders, a huge thing, maybe a ton, but it worked. Finally, I figured out how to record stuff I heard on the radio and, for me, it was like a miracle. Before that, I'd have to remember the music and go back to the particular station I liked and wait to hear the song again. I spent so much time there sometimes that I'd get dizzy and my parents would have to carry me off to bed. Every time I had the time, I did that.
If I find a song that has a lot of romance in it, something like Joe Cocker's "When The Night Comes," I get swept away. What would the world be without that one song? Or even The Beatles with "With Little Help From My Friends" or "The Long and Winding Road." What would the world be without that music?
SoT: So, when did you make the move from being swept away by music to creating your own?
MW: I always had moments when I was lying in the grass, looking at the sky, when I was maybe four or five years old when I would come up with melodies. It was troubling, disturbing because I had no means of recording it, keeping it. I'd have to save it in my memory. Naturally, you can imagine, you forget what it is you've been humming once you've been humming it for six months. That bothered me. I thought, "I need ways of somehow expressing what I'm doing here."
But, even after that, the problem was finding the right instrument. My parents tried to give me saxophone, xylophone, piano, but nothing took. But I decided to become a guitarist when I saw a guy play around a campfire. He sang terribly but he attracted all the girls. I thought, "First of all, I'm pretty sure I can sing a lot better than that guitar that I guy. I'd also be able to play guitar a lot better than him and I could attract the girls and I'd have a way to convey my melodies." That's what started it.
So, at 12, I asked my parents to get me an acoustic guitar. I wound up taking lessons about a year-and-a-half. But, even earlier than that, when I was 10, we went to see the James Bond movie Diamonds Are Forever. We were there with a local church community into the theater and I heard Shirley Bassey singing, "Diamonds Are Forever" and that was the first occasion, after the experiences I'd had with my parents' equipment, when I'd been able to hear something on a large scale, with very good sound. I heard possibilities, I could tell what things would be like if I could only do them properly. That was clear. I wanted to do that.
So, when I do something like "Windmill" [from 1993's Chameleon], it's just a natural expression of what I always wanted to do.
SoT: Has music, in some ways, been a deeper form of communication for you than even speech?
MW: Yeah. It's also a form of arrogance in a way. You can convey various things. Whatever you want. You can try happiness, you can try sadness, you can try arrogance, you can try joviality, many things. If you have the right means to do it. Some people can do it well and some people can't. It really depends on how gifted they are.
Take Jeff Lynne from ELO. This morning, when I woke up, I had a melody from ELO's recent Zoom record in my head. I was wondering why he sang in the fashion that he did on that record and who he could address with a few of the particular songs. To me, he sounds more cynical on that record than any other ELO record. I found myself saying, "Why would that be?" I thought that, maybe, he was trying to say that he can still do it after 30 years and say, "Look, this is another ELO record. I can still do it."
SoT: You have an amazingly diverse music background. What was it that led you to play heavy metal?
MW: It's really simple. I've been a Beatles fan for as long as I can remember. The stuff I liked best from the radio was usually The Beatles. I could also follow their development. I got my first Beatles record was I was 12. It's a little strange because I'd been listening to them for 12 years and then I got my first record. That's strange. I mean, if you heard Helloween and said, "I like that," you'd probably rush to the record store and buy it.
I knew, before everyone [else in Germany], knew that there was a band called Van Halen coming out. A friend of mine had gone to the U.S. on vacation came back to Germany and I said, "Are there any new, really heavy bands, maybe like Ted Nugent or something heavier?" I wanted something heavy. He said, "There's a great band called Van Halen and when they come over here everybody will look up to them in awe. They'll destroy everything." I knew about that three-quarters of a year before.
So, I went to the record owner and said, "Look, there's going to be an American band called Van Halen releasing a record sometime. When it comes out, I want you to call me and tell me that you have the record." Maybe I was the first person in the country to have a Van Halen album.
Plus, The Beatles did "Helter Skelter," "Birthday," stuff like that, where they used distorted guitars. I really liked those distorted guitars because they gave me a kick. I thought, "This sounds fucking good. How can I make my guitar sound like this?" Obviously, I had those older records, such as 20 Power Hits in '74, with Wizard's "See My Baby Drive" and Deep Purple's "My Woman From Tokyo," Elton John's "Rocket Man," Free's "Wishing Well," all of that. All those songs had distorted guitars and, to me, that was really, really thrilling. I wanted to something with distorted guitars. I could relate to that.
Also, one day in 1970, there was Jimi Hendrix on the TV, torturing his guitar. He was on a scientific program, on the nerds and geeks channel. I went to my mom and said, "This is terrible. It's a black guy destroying a white guitar, it's impossible." I was afraid, in some ways. I'd never seen that. It made an impact and that's why I still have white guitars. Hendrix tortured a white Stratocaster and to me that looked like a very good thing to have.
SoT: Kiss was like that for me. I was very attracted to them, both musically and with their appearance, with the makeup, and then also scared.
MW: Yeah, yeah. Well, they were also Beatles fans and Paul Stanley is one of the best songwriters in rock and roll. He can also tell you all kinds of stories about what The Beatles meant to him.
SoT: What did your parents think when you started pursuing a career in music?
MW: They were always interested in my playing an instrument but they didn't expect me to try and be a professional. But what else could I do? I wasn't interested in mathematics. I was maybe interested in languages. I learned English because I knew that if I wanted to be in a band I needed English and that if I wanted to understand The Beatles' lyrics, I needed English. So, my parents never expected anything major to happen with music but they were glad that I had an interest in instruments, guitar and all of that.
They'd said, "If we get this expensive guitar for you (which wasn't really all that expensive) and it sits in the corner, we'll be very disappointed in you." It was standing in the corner, which was a challenge. It was something I didn't really know and had to master and it took some time. But I didn't want to take on books by myself but I did take lessons in classical guitar and so I was forced to touch the instrument at least once a week and so maybe that helped me in a way, otherwise maybe I would have been lazy.
On the other hand, you have ideas and you need a way to convey them; but you need be able to play it, otherwise it's just pictures of stick men. That wasn't what I wanted.
SoT: What was it like, the first time you saw a Helloween record in a store?
MW: Call me arrogant or something but that's what I wanted to happen and that feeling of seeing your work in a store is unbelievable. You have to get a record contract. When we were trying it was more or less impossible. You could have been the German Queen and nobody would have given you a record contract. The idea behind Helloween was that you had to something outrageous, shocking ,extreme, otherwise there'd be no record contract. We were ready to do that because we wanted to show that we were more intricate, faster than Rainbow or Accept or Motorhead. We were a little arrogant.
We were capable of playing our instruments quite well. We were young, we had a lot of energy. But we were smoking a little too much hash and we went into a mindset of, "Let us teach you what it's all about." So, we did some recordings in our rehearsal room, then Kai Hansen dubbed his vocals on it. That made enough of an impact on the record companies that we finally got a record contract. Luckily, many metal bands were emerging. But that never mattered all that much to us. I'm still a musician at heart, if you want to call it metal, then it's metal. If you want to call it hard rock, which isn't true by definition because we'd need an organ and sound like Uriah Heep or Deep Purple, that's okay. But I've been through all of that and I'm still thinking about, "What is heavy metal?"
We've been around for 20 years and in the beginning, heavy metal was something different than now. To people now, heavy metal is Guns 'N Roses. That's funny because people have said that Rabbit Don't Come Easy is a bit Deep Purple, a bit Guns 'N Roses and I say, "No!" because I don't like Guns 'N Roses that much. I like Slash's Snakepit but Guns 'N Roses always came across as anti-social. To me, they weren't the originators of that style of music and therefore I refrain from allowing them to be in my songs. [Laughs.]
SoT: Was it always important to you that Helloween expressed some level of positivity?
MW: Absolutely. That's part of me being a Christian. I have a responsibility. I can go out there and say, "Kill your mothers, kill your fathers" like Jim Morrison would do and then I can add, "Then kill yourself if you don't like the situation." If you do that, you're [perceived as] cool. I can influence a lot of people by doing that because I'm doing music and people are listening to that. But you don't know what kind of weak-hearted characters have access to that. If I tell them to commit the wrong things, they can. I don't want that. So, I have a fucking responsibility to do something positive.
I'm out there to deliver a message. Now, maybe you're sick of hearing that from bands from the '60s and '70s. They were very much about message and that's how I am. For me, there has to be a message. To use The Beatles again: There was no negative message there, no negative feelings after you listened to one of their tracks. They never said, "Kill this, kill that." They may have said the world "revolution," but, you know, it was in the sense of "If you're carrying pictures of Chairman Mao/You ain't gonna make it with anyone anyhow," not "If you're carrying pictures of Chairman Mao, I'm going to kick your butt." They felt responsible for what they were doing because they were aware of what could happen.
If I wrote a song about going out and killing people and for 20 years nothing happened, but one day [someone hears it] and then more people hear it and they suddenly decide that it should be the anthem of a whole generation that wants to do nothing but kill people, then it's my fucking fault.
SoT: Do you think that younger artists lack that sense of responsibility?
MW: No, not really. I mean, sure, there are some but you can't generalize too much. There are young people with good hearts and young people with bad hearts. You just have to keep in mind that whatever you utter, you'll have to live up to that. To me, it's a cop-out to say, "Oh, but I was so young at that time." No, you weren't so fucking young. You can be young but it doesn't mean you have to be stupid.
SoT: Well, I see that we're just about out of time.
MW: Wait! I didn't tell you yet that we're going to come to the U.S. for about 8-10 shows, depending on promoters, of course. It's going to be market-intensive spots.
SoT: So, probably summer?
MW: We'll do the South American tour in September, full-scale. Then we do Mexico, then the States, if the SARS thing doesn't spread too much. Plus, we'll hit Europe and a full-scale Asian tour. But look at what's going on with fucking SARS. We're supposed to play Hong Kong and I want to play there but if SARS continues to spread, that jeopardizes the Asian tour. I want to do it, I'm pretty keen on it. Once I'm keen on doing something, I want to do it [and it's frustrating when] something like SARS happens.
SoT: SARS. Yeah, they're telling us over here not to go to Canada.
MW: But that's what they always told you. [Laughs.]
SoT: [Laughs.] Now there's another excuse. "No, no, it'll kill you."
MW: That's it. Blame Canada. You've seen the South Park Movie, right?
MW: With Saddam Hussein making out with the devil? That was good. But, look, I have to go. I've got to call the Czech Republic.
SoT: Thanks for your time.