February 13, 2015 Interview – Hansi Kürsch of Blind Guardian
He is the voice behind one of the most influential acts in the entire vibrant spectrum of heavy metal music. Blind Guardian, a larger than life juggernaut of epic, mind-expanding power metal, emerged in the mid-1980s amid a slew of like-minded contemporaries, but soon catapulted into another realm entirely. Hansi Kürsch, along with his compatriots, has steered the ship of Blind Guardian through the waters of thrash-influenced speed metal into a complex, orchestral marriage between neoclassical, rock-opera styling and honest to goodness heavy metal. A career that has sent them to the ends of the earth and into the hearts of legions of adoring fans now finds them releasing their tenth studio album, entitled Beyond the Red Mirror, to unprecedented accolades. CrypticRock recently had the good fortune to speak with the voice behind the mirror. Amid a busy swath of press engagements, Kürsch took the time to speak about the writing process for the new album, life after thirty years in a band, movies, musical influences, and more.
CrypticRock.com – Blind Guardian is now going on three plus decades together. Many would consider the band one of the most influential in the Power Metal genre. Tell us after all these years what has the journey been like?
Hansi Kürsch – Very enjoyable. always refreshing, definitely time demanding in terms of being busy – literally busy for thirty years. On the other hand not something which really feels like thirty years. I’d say it feels like maybe ten years or so. Things thirty years ago appear so new or so fresh in my mind that I hardly can believe that its thirty years ago. And seeing the movements in the scene and the metal world in general is a very fascinating, sensational issue which still thrills me every day. So many changes but people still relate to the ’80s as the founding days of heavy metal and wish everything would sound like the ‘8os. So many good and progressive things have come in; I really love most of the development in the metal scene.
CrypticRock.com – Speaking of those early days, the band’s first several albums possessed more of a relationship to the world of Helloween, Gamma Ray, and the distinctly German Speed Metal/Power Metal send that in those days was still in its embryonic stages. It was not until you released Nightfall in Middle Earth in 1998 that you really began to stand apart and do something all your own. Was this intentional or did it happen by accident?
Hansi Kürsch- It was a natural progress. We started as a German band, as you mentioned, but stronger than those other bands we have had a strong passion for American thrash metal bands such as Testament and Forbidden, or the more progressive American acts like Fates Warning and Sanctuary. They have had a large influence on us, actually, from Follow the Blind (1989) on, and at that point already we had changed the direction a little into our own sort of category, even though it was strongly related to that German metal. We just designed that style up until the point where we felt we had given our strongest output possible in that direction. This was the case with Imaginations from the Other Side (1995). We tried to define ourselves and we thought about a change which would help define ourselves anew and come up with something which would suit Blind Guardian but would not put us at risk of copying Imaginations. And therefore we went into this more mythological, epic direction. And ever since we worked on that, we felt that Nightfall in Middle Earth was the output of outputs. We felt the necessity to change more after this album. This was the basic foundation for the album A Night at the Opera (2002). We felt ever since that we followed that direction because it is a good way we have gone, but we can add things to it. At a certain point in the future we may feel we have defined this particular style (post Night at the Opera) and we may have to define ourselves again.
CrypticRock.com – Sometimes fans do not understand the impetus for progress in a band’s sound. That point of view certainly helps clear things up. Now, Beyond the Red Mirror is the band’s first studio album in five years. What was it like getting back into the writing and recording process? Was it easy or difficult?
Hansi Kürsch – We are always adjusting a little bit. We did that after A Night At The Opera, A Twist In The Myth, and At The Edge Of Time. We change the style of the way we did the song writing, and the way we did the recording. When we did At The Edge Of Time, we decided it might make sense to have some concerts in between recording sessions to get a bit more of the live energy into the studio. This time we discovered the song writing process / production had to be split up, because very early on in the process we saw that we were coming up with some very complex songs. In the very early period of songwriting we decided that after two or three composed songs we would have a recording session. Which at the very end turned out to be four recording sessions and one mixing session. Its always difficult to come in with new songs and new ideas. Normally when we do the songwriting for a new album, the first songs we do sound mostly like the album before, and we have to develop those songs to get them to be their own thing. This has not been the case for Beyond the Red Mirror. For whatever reason, Andre (Olbrich- guitars) started to come up with a song that eventually became “Ashes of Eternity,” and this reminded me more of A Night At The Opera than it did At The Edge Of Time. It was a very individual songwriting period we were facing. Each song musically told a slightly different story but they always came in pairs. So for instance when we worked on “Ashes of Eternity” the next song we were working on was “At The Edge of Time.” It always seemed to work out this way. The next one we did was “Prophecies” and “Grand Parade,” I think it was. So we had these two pieces of music going along together, which made me start thinking lyrically about concepts which deal with two different universes.
CrypticRock.com – It is really interesting to delve into the details of how a band as prolific as Blind Guardian actually writes the songs the fans have grown to love so well. As far as those lyrical concepts on the new album, they are certainly amazing and full of depth. To sum up the writing process for Blind Guardian, do you and Andre and Marcus live in the same area?
Hansi Kürsch – Yes, Andre lives only about ten minutes from me, and Marcus about ten minutes from Andre. Apart from songwriting and studio time, we barely see ourselves (laughs).
CrypticRock.com – It certainly helps when the songwriting core of the band lives as close as a trip to the grocery store. So, in considering Blind Guardian’s orchestral style that you have now, if you think back to the faster, perhaps simpler songs from the early days, and compare them with the multi-tracked, orchestral, complicated pieces of the last fifteen years or so, which type of songs were more difficult to write and why?
Hansi Kürsch – It depends. You cannot compare, I would say. You have to consider that when we did Somewhere Far Beyond (1992) our skills as musicians and composers was lower than it is now. But there was an excitement and a universe ahead of us which we had not discovered yet, so it was easier to come up with these songs because the opportunities we were being given were far bigger. On the other hand our skills as musicians and our abilities were lower. As we went on to each album, it became harder to compose new and interesting stuff because we had explored so many musical territories so thoroughly that it gets harder to do. With the age and experience we gathered, it becomes more difficult to come up with new ideas. It might be an unlimited amount to be found in you, but you need to scratch the regions where these ideas can be found. And this is a process which keeps us constantly busy during the writing and production of new songs, because there’s no need for us to do another Somewhere Far Beyond because the way we’ve used the power chords there is the best way we can do it. And the power chords do not change. And Andre and Marcus want to explore new riffs and arrangements so they’re not repeating themselves, so their material becomes more complex. Therefore the way I treat the vocals over such riffs becomes more complicated as well. But the main point is we still find these new regions of creativity, we enjoy it, and whatever we do we carry the same enthusiasm. The change for us ourselves for a song like ‘Holy Grail’ and ‘Journey through the Dark’ and let’s say, ‘Dark Passage’ and ‘Grand Parade,’ the differences there for us are not that big. We move on with the same passion and for the same reasons.
CrypticRock.com – Your vocal arrangements, even going back to Nightfall in Middle Earth or to earlier songs like “Lost in the Twilight Hall” and “The Last Candle” from 1990’s Tales From The Twilight World, right up to those on Beyond the Red Mirror, have this way of making these epic vocal switches, from background chorus to your voice and back, and it always results in a very exciting and invigorating listen. Now, if we can explore a bit about what is being said in those stellar vocal arrangements. Is there a grand, unifying theme lyrically on Beyond the Red Mirror?
Hansi Kürsch – Yes, there is. It is a concept album. This goes back to Imaginations From The Other Side (1995) where I had not finished the essential story of the album, which is about a boy who is supposed to be the chosen one in a different universe than the one he’s living in. And he’s supposed to jump through a magical mirror which is the portal between the two worlds. We leave the protagonist there when we finish “And the Story Ends.” While thinking about the lyrics and the concepts for our new album I realized we never finished that story. We will be meeting this boy again 20 years later who is still on his quest to find the mirror to get through this other universe. It is a sort of modern quest for the Holy Grail you could say, and the protagonist you could say is a modern King Arthur.
CrypticRock.com – That very interesting to hear. You could say that what mankind desires does not really change throughout the centuries. Those stories always have a very poignant meaning.
Hansi Kürsch – The story did not start like that. There was a lot of stuff going on, I had a lot of topics in my head. It’s more sci-fi related than it might have been in the past. Leaving Imaginations out, which has a very realistic aspect to the lyrical concepts at points, I was really just thinking about a concept and then I came up with the idea to connect it to Imaginations and the boy, and there is that link to King Arthur, and the way the boy feels and what he goes through is very similar to the King Arthur legend. I agree, these stories still have a strong tie to modern society.
CrypticRock.com – Absolutely. Do you read Ursula K. Le Guin?_____________________
Hansi Kürsch – Yes I do. ________________________________________
CrypticRock.com – She wrote a great essay called From Elfland to Poughkeepsie. J.R.R. Tolkein wrote a similar one as well, both of which articulate these connections between fantasy / mythological stories and how they apply to our real, modern, everyday lives.
Hansi Kürsch – Those are great ideas but you do not always have to do that precisely. This analogy is certainly there, no matter how you tell the story. I love Tolkein’s point of view of telling the story without any explanation. Just tell the story, and then the reader can come to their own conclusions. Just like with writing music.
CrypticRock.com – That is very true. When you were younger you probably had a more carefree attitude toward touring. At this stage of your career, have life’s added burdens and responsibilities caused you to view yourself differently as a musician than you might have in the past?
Hansi Kürsch – Life is fragile and relationships are fragile so one has to be more careful and more responsible in what he’s doing in a touring situation. To us its still a rock-n-roll lifestyle to a certain extent. But we cannot exaggerate. For example I liked to party when I was around in the ’80s and drink and uh, do a lot of bullshit. (laughs). As the band became bigger, the responsibility for the show itself became so big that this alone led to a change in behavior. Nowadays we are very responsible with what we are doing. There’s hardly any alcohol on board when we tour now. Because now, due to new media people are a lot more critical. Back in the day you could have a shitty show and no one would really find out. But now, with the internet, you will be able to see it. And the internet does not forget. So people get a certain idea about the band’s performance and this could hurt your reputation if its always bad. So we try to be in the best possible shape which means you have to take care.
CrypticRock.com – Steve Harris was always adamant in keeping the rest of the guys in Iron Maiden from partying too hard; it was one of the reasons they kicked out Paul Di’Anno. Such a decision, as you said, keeps a band sounding young and fresh and being able to perform on stage at a high level. As with Iron Maiden, Blind Guardian has maintained that high energy level. So, It has been about a decade since Demons & Wizards album Touched By The Crimson King was released. Do you still talk to Jon Schaffer (Iced Earth) and are there any plans to make a third Demons & Wizards album?
Hansi Kürsch – Jon and I still have a very close relationship and we constantly talk to each other. And of course we talk about Demons & Wizards, but unfortunately I do not see us being able to make another album before the year 2017. I desperately would love to do it, immediately, if possible, but our schedules are so occupied that we never have time to focus on new songwriting. But there will come a time where we will do the album. And once we do it we will want to do touring as well. This prospective album would be the third Demons & Wizards album, and a very important one.
CrypticRock.com – That is excellent. Many fans probably remembering when the first Demons & Wizards album came out and it felt like Christmas.
Hansi Kürsch – (Laughs) Yes it was the same for me. I remember we had just finished Nightfall In Middle Earth and were about to start the production on A Night At The Opera. Jon and I took the time then to do the first Demons & Wizards album. And we ran through the writing and recording so fast. It was such an exciting time, we were very thrilled about it. We played some European festivals in 2000. It was a really pleasant experience.
CrypticRock.com – Amazing. Fans will be salivating over another Demons & Wizards album. So, can you tell us what some of your own personal musical influences were that led you to this incredible path of music?
Hansi Kürsch – The most obvious one would be Queen. It was one of the first bands I listened to. Then Electric Light Orchestra, Genesis, Jethro Tull, Led Zeppelin, and Deep Purple. Then I became a pure metalhead later on, in the very early ’80’s I started listening to Angelwitch, Iron Maiden, and Tygers of Pan Tang. Then when the American bands started showing up. Metallica, Queensryche …. these became my idols.
CrypticRock.com – All essential listening there. My last question for you is pertaining to movies. CrypticRock.com covers music and horror films. You clearly find inspiration in literature, but if you are a fan of Horror films what are some of your favorite horror films?
Hansi Kürsch – I am not a fan of Horror movies, but I am a fan of more psychological thrillers like American Horror Story. I like the apocalyptic stuff like The Leftovers and Carnivale. The Leftovers is so good and Nicholas Cage is going to be in a movie inspired by the book called The Outcasts. Very excited about that stuff. There was a French series called The Returned. Its a spooky story about people who come back to life ten years after a disappearance, as if nothing has happened. The story is about the people having to get along like that, and there’s a back story about what occurred. The people did not know they were dead. Its a great story but the end was cheesy. Very inspiring beginning though. So I don’t like The Walking Dead. I’m not into that. I think its cheesy…most zombie stories are I think. I like Dracula and vampire stuff but not zombie stuff.