August 10, 2021 Interview – Michael Weikath of Helloween
Having formed back in 1981, Hamburg, Germany’s beloved and accomplished veterans Helloween not only established itself as a Heavy Metal institution, the band arguably invented that special combination of Speed and Power Metal unique to themselves and a handful of other bands in the then nascent German scene. Unlike most major acts who endured changes of vocalists, Helloween has managed to not only bring all of them together, but to retain them for more than just a world tour.
The Pumpkins United Tour of 2019 was a smashing success, so much so that the band responded to fans’ wishes and created an album which includes the unique pipes of Kai Hansen, Michael Kiske, and Andi Deris, as well as adding the guitar riffs of Hansen to the long-time six-string brilliance of Michael Weikath and Sascha Gerstner. The eponymous title seems fitting, as this, in essence, is all of what made Helloween who they are.
Recently, Cryptic Rock was fortunate enough to have a chat with the aforementioned Weikath, one of the founding members of Helloween. The man who is affectionately known by the nickname Weiki shed some light on developments within the band, the new album, and more . . .
Cryptic Rock – To get right to it, the new album Helloween is downright incredible. To have all three singers from all eras of the band involved, is that something that you ever thought you’d be able to accomplish? And did writing the song “Pumpkins United” convince you that it would be possible to write an entire album with all of the Pumpkins literally together?
Michael Weikath – Yeah, well, that “Pumpkins United” thing was like the base for later. People were coming up saying, “Okay, this was good.” I mean, we had that track, but we couldn’t even rehearse it for the first bit of the tour because our heads were full; we couldn’t add yet another track in time to play that on the first segment of the tour. So we did that on the second, and then you had that video and the official recording to it. People said, “That one went well,” so now you’ve got to do an album, right? Also, we didn’t know what to expect when we started the whole thing. We didn’t know that it would take on biblical proportions and stuff or that it would feel so good.
You have the fans saying, “Yeah, okay. You’ve got to do an album.” And then management would say, “You’ve got to do an album.” Record company would say “do an album.” And we said, “Yeah, okay, okay.” Cause before it wasn’t sure. And doing that “Pumpkins United” track in the middle of rehearsals for regular tour, that was like the least pleasurable that you would have wanted right then, but it sure was worth doing it. And it did what it did. And we survived it; we went through it, even though we were not prepared for creating an extra new track right then, but we did. We connected some riffs, some lyrics, and some ideas and that’s how it worked out; there was no other way. Get more involved with three composers or whatever in one track, from a certain point it was just like we got all the parts, you just finish it the way you want.
Cryptic Rock – Listening to this album all the way through a couple of times, it sounds like an album made with no added pressure, no expectations. It sounds very polished and professional, but it has this raw energy, this youthful energy; it sounds like it could be your first album and in the best way possible.
Michael Weikath – We did the live Blu-ray and the live production, so you have that raw punch with the guitars and everything. We said we want to recreate this for the studio album, so that means everyone has to play his bit until he’s satisfied. We combined the three guitars so that you’ve got the same effect as on live recordings, which is not to be taken lightly – you can very easily fail in trying to bring across three guitars. But the thing is that the three guitars who are there as the characters, they suit each other and they complement each other; this is why it works. You can easily take guitarists X,Y, Z and they won’t work, they won’t mingle, right? So we’re particularly lucky with that.
Then we just went into writing tracks, doing as good as we could. We had a meeting in the middle of April 2019 where we compared all the stuff, then Kai Hansen only had to come up with “Skyfall” at the end of the year when we had the free production sessions in Hamburg. That studio was where we recorded a few albums before: Chameleon (1993), Better Than Raw (1998), The Time of the Oath (1996), Master of the Rings (1994). That’s the same studio, it just has a different name.
Cryptic Rock – Some songs on the album, particularly the up-tempo “Robot King,” hearken back to moments like “Midnight Sun” on Better Than Raw, especially with the trading guitar solos back and forth. This is some of the best material Helloween has written.
Michael Weikath – That’s rough and dirty. Yeah. I mean, like someone said: “I need to shower after listening to this.” Who was that?
Cryptic Rock – (Laughs) That’s fantastic. Helloween is certainly considered a legacy band, definitely one of the greatest, most successful Heavy Metal bands in the world. A lot of legacy bands are, to varying degrees, held hostage by their classic era. Helloween achieved heaps of success early with the first two Keeper albums, as well as video and radio success with the single “I Want Out.” And then the 1990s hit. There is Grunge and all that the commercial Metal takes a hit, but you guys come out of it. Helloween has avoided the stigma of being held hostage by their classic era. Why do you think that is? What’s different about Helloween?
Michael Weikath – When it came to the ’90s or whatever, there must have been a great amount of stoics or pragmatics, kind of like whatever – Queens of the Stone Age, Nirvana or whatever – I was never interested in that stuff. I was going like, “Yeah, let them do what they want to do.” It’s a baby, a rattle and do something with it, but that’s what they did, right? And they were quite successful and we know how to handle records better, maybe, but that was of no big use to us; taking what were our points in the career and what we had to do, we just, somehow, had to survive. As it stands, it’s not that any one of us can easily do office work, so we had to do something eventually. Maybe we were also lucky ,and maybe we were protected by Providence or whatever. I don’t know.
Cryptic Rock – Well, losing Michael Kiske and then gaining Andy Deris, and just killing it in the latter half of the 1990s, Many would agree that most do not look at Helloween as a nostalgia act. Even a band like Iron Maiden, there are fans who will not accept their new material because it isn’t Number of the Beast (1982) or Powerslave (1984). I don’t feel like anyone does that with Helloween; you’ve always been able to transcend all that.
Michael Weikath – At least there’s you and a few other people who don’t want to be named, who say that, at least. That’s something. Other people don’t really have that. It’s just like everything is being flattened out, flat as to you and then that’s the way you have to think about a particular band. There’s never any change, right? And then you never talk about Blue Öyster Cult or whatever, heaven forbid, something like that. But that was a great effort. It also takes people like you to just say if that’s true, that’s true.
Cryptic Rock – That’s a good point. Nowadays there might be more freedom because of the internet. There are not as many barriers between genres or anything like that. Do you feel like it has gotten better in that regard with fans? Like they don’t care if something’s Power Metal or Thrash Metal or Death Metal?
Michael Weikath – It’s all so spread out, which could be a danger, and then you basically miss something really great because no one told you. It was like when ELO did the Zoom (2001): I was pretty disappointed with all my friends because no one had told me. I had to go from Madrid Airport and there was a record store. I went in there – I mean can you believe it, a record store? – then I found that Zoom album. Nobody had told me about it and it was already a year old, or one and a half. I was like why didn’t anyone tell me? Why was there nothing on the internet? Why do I have to find out now? But it’s like with so many things: if you got a majority of people being interested in something or go on certain ways, then it will accumulate and it will get like a critical mass. Then there’s going to be something that would show, right?
Given all the circumstances, I just want to hope that that works. But that’s fine – it does work, for sure. It’s like when Madonna has a new record or a new video everybody talks about it, you get to read about it. Then there’s powers at work that maybe don’t want to have certain things appear or whatever, but people will find the thing that they want to know. Supposedly the Helloween album will find its way to a majority of people who are interested in it. So it’s a widespread instrument, the internet, but it’s on behalf of everyone who’s interested in something to find his way through it and then eventually it gains momentum. As long as that works, it’s fine.
Cryptic Rock – Very true. How would you say that the pandemic situation affected your outlook on touring and being creative? Do you think the break could possibly help you guys be more creative because you all had more time to devote to it? Also, do you think that being held down by the pandemic and not being able to move around, do you think that reignited your desire to tour or provided a spark of spontaneity evident in the songs of Helloween?
Michael Weikath – Well, I have trouble finding anything positive about it. There’s one good side to it because on the 18th of June, I was told we’re pretty much finished with the vinyl production of the vinyl records of Helloween, so that would have taken time if we would have launched the whole thing earlier. We may have had a shortage on vinyl albums, and so this way at least you can say, if you are inclined to, that was a good thing they got all the vinyl records.
Cryptic Rock – That worked out well for you, for sure. Some artists have said that when you live that touring life and you are constantly touring, writing, touring, writing that this break was something they didn’t know they needed. Out of curiosity, from a writing standpoint, did it hinder or help your writing?
Michael Weikath: I was starting my work here in February 2019, and I went on until the middle of April when I had the three tracks finished. Then we met and we compared them all, and we had the majority of all the material already recorded before the lockdown struck. We had to continue a few weeks for the stuff that was still needed to be recorded; that was some vocals, that was some guitars, melody guitars, solos, which we did. So you just needed to make sure that you have that piece of paper where it said, “I need to go to the studio and record some guitars” and come around with a few ideas of mine.
There was only a bit of time left and then we would finish with everything, luckily. A friend went into mixing and our producer, Charlie Bauerfeind, followed everything here, and they had a standing line in between the Valhalla studio and the studio here. They have that system where you can connect and you can see what’s going on, on the monitor. So it was all kinds of real-time mixing suggestions, kind of like, “Oh yeah, the guitarist said he’d like to have more echo on that thing and stuff” until they were finally finished.
We’re all pretty proud and that’s something. I think people are going to take this to their hearts, and what I like about the schedule is it’s going to be a summer album. I’m not sure if we ever had a summer album. And what I keep saying is what I kept saying to the old record companies before: Can we just put out albums at an early point in the year, spring and summer? So the people have a nice remembrance of that album rather than muddy, swampy snow and ice and stuff. Like when you slipped with your bike and a car hits you afterwards and you have to spend a weekend in the hospital listening to Helloween. You don’t want the same type of those things.
Cryptic Rock – Well, if I was laid up in a hospital and I needed to be cheered up, I would want to listen to Helloween, but understood.
Michael Weikath – Once I was in the hospital, and I listened to Alcatrazz No Parole for Rock ‘n’ Roll (1983) all the time. There was nothing else I had. I had just that tape and I played it to, there was another guy, like a Polish guy who had landed against a heater – he fell asleep at the heater. They had to scratch skin off from his back and so he had to listen to Alcatrazz all the time, as well. And he loved it.
Cryptic Rock – That is an amusing memory. When you were young and you first picked up the guitar, what musicians, what singers, what guitarists were your main inspiration?
Michael Weikath – Well, first of all it was The Beatles. I saw George Harrison had played “While My Guitar Gently Weeps” or whatever. No, it was Eric Clapton, I came to find out later. So I rehearsed that solo, first of all, then I wanted to know how something of The Beatles was being played. Then it was obviously “Wishing Well” by Free, then Deep Purple Live in Japan (1972). Like, you want to see if you can play all that stuff that’s on there. Or maybe AC/DC Let There Be Rock (1977), If You Want Blood You’ve Got It (1978), their live album.
Then you play “Whole Lotta Rosie” and stuff to try to copy Angus Young with what is playing there, or you’ll see some Johnny Winter on Rock Tennis at night, and you’ll say how is this guy doing this – playing for three hours, there’s no interruption. Or you’ll get to hear Hot and Ready (1978) by UFO with Michael Schenker, and you’re saying this is impossible – how can somebody play like this? You get to hear something of The Scorpions, and then you’ll try to play that and there’s always like a higher level. Then there was Eddie Van Halen that you could try to mimic.
Cryptic Rock – At what point did you realize that you and a few other people gave birth to a hybrid of Speed Metal and Power Metal. You combined the fast-paced, double bass mixture of Thrash with power chords. You did that quite early in the history of Extreme Metal.
Michael Weikath – It was only that we wanted to outdo Rainbow, Motörhead and all that. Obviously you had the Slayer guys, which you were realizing, you were like, “Oh, they’re pretty fast” or “Can we do this, too?” Kind of like that. We were thinking of how to bring that across to people, that they memorize the freaking melodies; that when they leave the concert and you have no records out, you want them to remember that stuff easily. So when they leave and they have no demo or CD, because we didn’t have anything until we had that record contract, you needn’t worry anymore because people could always repeat it. We were keen on having our music be so clear that you would always remember it.