Helloween’s Michael Kiske – Taming Ego + The Rebirth of Power Metal’s Originators
In 2017, the unthinkable happened — power metal originators Helloween reunited with classic members Michael Kiske and Kai Hansen... and nobody was booted from the lineup. Now, a historic self-titled reunion album that features a total of seven members, is nearly in our grasp (it comes out June 18) and we spoke with legendary singer Kiske about the role that ego — or the lack of ego — played in uniting everyone.
In an era where, unfortunately, many band feuds play out where various members form different versions of the group and duke it out in court over rights to the proper name, Helloween managed to avoid all of that by putting aside ego with a focus on the collective spirit and the pursuit of something entirely new for everyone involved.
Helloween, the band's 12-track new album which unites every era of the band, could not possibly be a more fan-oriented album. There's co-writes between members who were never in the band together at the same time, which thrusts Helloween into new territory while, simultaneously, there's many nods to the past with Kiske taking lead on songs written by guitarist and occasional third singer, Hansen, as well mainstay Michael Weikath.
Elsewhere, Kiske and Deris' voice work magnificently, either through clever tradeoffs or resplendent harmonies.
It all feels very pure and natural, but a lot of necessary things had to happen personally and professionally between Kiske's 1993 exit and the present day.
In our interview, we discuss Kiske's life outside of Helloween, where, in addition to continuing to make new music, he dove deeply into spiritual philosophy and gained a heightened perspective of himself and the type of life he wanted to lead. These practices eventually allowed him to bond quite easily with his new bandmates, singer Andi Deris and guitarist Sascha Gerstner in particular.
Of course, we eventually dive into the new record and what transpired in order for this unparalleled reunion to take root.
Before we get into this new record, let's go back to your first stint with Helloween. What do you hear now when you look back on Chameleon, your last album with Helloween before you left in 1993?
I don't like to look at them very much, but there were some good songs there.
When you look at the first years of Helloween where I was part of it, everything seemed to work. Time was on our side and when years like that happen, you feel invincible. When Kai left, it was naive to think that it wouldn't be such a big change. We were completely dysfunctional.
Afterward, when I was on my own, those years were so important for me personally for shaping my character and growing.
Helloween, "Crazy Cat"
When you left Helloween, you got painted as this person who detested heavy metal, which wasn't quite true. You were still into it — you had solo albums, Place Vendome was still heavy, you sang guest spots on Avantasia albums... pretty involved. You've expressed that your disdain was more rooted in the metal community itself, rather than the music. What made you feel so disenfranchised?
I was never just a metalhead. I started with Elvis [Presley] and I got over to the Beatles, and that never stopped, even in my heaviest metal years. I was still listening to classical music, Kate Bush and U2.
I never understood how people make a religion out of one specific type of music and demonize all the rest. You lose a lot of good stuff.
With Chameleon, I felt like I was attacked. The fans don't do it because they want to hurt you, but because they lost something you have done. You do something completely different, and they can't follow and then they're disappointed. It's not a very grown-up way of dealing with music and art, but it is understandable.
When I did my first solo record, people were bitching that it didn't sound like Helloween.
I always had problems with the Satanic stuff, too, where people idealize inhumanity and brutality and tell the young ones to be heartless and cold-hearted. It got very big in the '90s, and I got a bit extreme and radical with many things. I was on a crusade on the internet and chat rooms.
In the '90s, you were one of the finalists auditioning for Iron Maiden. The job went to Blaze Bayley, and then Helloween recruited Andi Deris. So, you have these two bands who went with a very different style singer than what they just had. Did you see a parallel in the decisions between what Iron Maiden and Helloween both did at that period?
I cannot imagine Iron Maiden without Bruce Dickinson, and I can't imagine Judas Priest without Rob Halford. Helloween didn't do so bad with Andi though. He was just what the band needed in those days and, in my opinion, he saved Helloween in the early '90s.
In those days, when [the Master of the Rings] record came out, I didn't even listen to it. I didn't care. But now, I can listen to it completely objectively, and I understand why those albums [with Deris] were so successful — they sounded like Helloween, but fresh.
I don't want to hurt Blaze, I don't know him, but he was not Bruce Dickinson. I actually listened to [Iron Maiden's The X Factor] with Adrian Smith [who exited Iron Maiden in 1989] in my apartment when we were both fooling around with my first solo record [Instant Clarity]. We couldn't understand what we were hearing. The whole spirit of the album was very weird.
Michael Kiske, "New Horizons" (Co-written by Adrian Smith + Kai Hansen)
During this time, what else outside of music occupied your time? How did you work on yourself spiritually?
I started diving heavily into philosophy. I was not going to a university — I did that privately and for four hours every day I was studying, in my opinion, the only really interesting German idealist philosophers from the 16th century through the early 20th century.
I made this cross over to Rudolf Steiner and that was actually what I was looking for. It was the combination of thinking ability, the conscience of science, but completely spiritual. There are certain names that different cultures give individuals like him.
When you talk to more spiritual Christians who aren't just slaves over a certain dogma, they call individuals like that a paraclete — beings of the holy spirit. Buddhists would call beings like that Bodhisattvas, which are beings of a higher conscience. They can see these spiritual realities as clearly as we can see tables or guitars.
The exciting difference what makes it very unique is that Steiner could express these experiences that he had in an intellectual way and help the intellectual times that he was living in build a bridge from the way we think, which is usually very materialistic, to a spiritual understanding of it.
When I was just reading one of his early writings, The Philosophy of Freedom, I read the first couple of pages and I knew I was home. Then I completely dove into anthroposophy and I was studying up to eight to 10 hours a day. I almost destroyed my eyes because I was so hungry for it.
Did your relationship with the concept of ego during this time offer a new reflection on your time that you had spent in Helloween?
With the idea of death and resurrection, you sacrifice your ego. You don't kill it, but you clean it out and it can resurrect and [take the shape of] something else. Then you can become a more immortal individual in the future.
I would have to talk for hours to bring material into the game to explain this, but it's like this... We have been created as these egos a few thousand years ago, which we call the lower square. It's the ego, which is not mortal. It always comes to life when you are born and in some sort of reflection of your immortal self as the true son or daughter of God that everybody actually is.
We fell from higher spiritual realms into this physical dimension full of a lot of darkness where evil has been injected. This universe that we're living in right now has certain experiences and sin created this ego that we clear out through many lives.
Christ has everything to do with that and He brought the possibility of death and resurrection in a completely new way. We can become individual immortals by sacrificing the ego in a way that we clear it out, we learn to carry our cross and accept our karma.
When He talks about, "This is my blood, this is my flesh, only when you eat my flesh in my blood, you will have eternal life," he brought the eternal substance to Earth that we can feed from to save the ego.
So, to answer your question, a lot has changed about ego and how to deal with this.
As far as traditional ego is concerned, everything, from a fan perspective, has felt pretty amicable with a lot of Helloween's members — you sang on a Gamma Ray song in the '90s, Gamma Ray toured with Helloween in the 2000s and you later linked up with Kai in Unisonic, which is where you shared a festival bill with Helloween.
Speaking with Michael Weikath, he asked you, "What have I done that you cannot forgive me?" Was it at that point the veil had been lifted that maybe this was all one big, decades-long misunderstanding?
I just noticed that my anger was gone. So, my answer to him was, "I think I have forgiven you a long time ago," because I realized that in that moment. I understood quite quickly after a number of years, that it was meant to be.
Out of the suffering, frustration, and fights I went through, I gained so much and grew from it and it was just impossible to be angry at him. We're all older now, but Helloween has the same kind of dynamic and the same kind of spirit [as the '80s] and I almost forgot about what that felt like.
Forgiveness is one of the key things. That was such a healing experience and if you have anything like that in your life with someone where you have a bad situation or a bad experience, use this chance to get this out of your system. Do it!
Unisonic, "Unisonic" Music Video
One thing one this album that is very selfless and devoid of ego is that you don't have a single writing credit!
I didn't write anything because I thought we have enough key songwriters.
It was much more important that Kai and Weiki especially write songs because I see them as the key songwriters, even though others, including myself, have contributed songs to the whole history of the band. I still see those [classic] three years and the key songwriters and I thought, "Keep out of it. Just let them do it."
Something I feel that has slipped a bit under the radar is just how many songs Andi writes for each album. He's basically the main songwriter in Helloween and has been for a long time.
Absolutely! I always try to explain to people why I see Andi as the savior of this band in the '90s.
Even Sascha Gerstner who is a big force and very creative on many levels, is impressed by Andi's ability to sit down for a number of weeks and come back and say, "These are my songs that I have for this album, and they're all great."
I did not know Andi and never met him before [the reunion]. He was just that face that I had not connected very good feelings with when it appeared somewhere in a magazine because he took my job. I was a pain in the ass for him though, too, when he had to deal with Kiske fans, so, there was some kind of tension between both of us that was not really "us."
I spent two weeks with him — we went to places where he wanted to show me, had great food and we talked for hours. It was almost like I already knew him, and I'm sure I do from previous lives because there was this instant connection.
My first [new] connection though was with Sascha, when we had the very first Helloween meeting over here in Germany. You always have different ways of how you connect with people and he is a spiritual brother.
You don't evaluate every connection and say, "I love that guy more than that guy."
Kai, I love him, but he is completely opposite to who I am. He lives on sex, drugs and rock 'n' roll — a living cliche of the lifestyle — and I'm totally trying to find the meaning of life and, still, there is this connection. He's in every direction that I would never go.
Writing an album with multiple singers is naturally a bit challenging. What hurdles did you encounter, if any, and what did you enjoy most about this process of divvying up the vocals?
It's easier for a singer when you don't have to do everything. We have our own qualities and we can shine more in other directions. I was expecting it to be a lot more difficult and it was a bit with Kai at a certain point.
There was never any discussion about him being a singer, it was just me and Andi singing and Kai was the guitar player and songwriter. I got into this band only because he didn't want to sing in Helloween anymore. It was a surprise, but we didn't have a problem with it and it just adds an extra color.
On "Skyfall," Dennis Ward, our creative director, sketched out how he felt the parts could be split and thought it was a perfect Kiske tune that sounds a lot like the Keepers phase. I sang almost all of it the first time through, our manager was amazed, the producers felt great about it and then Kai said, "I thought I sang the song."
I was actually a little hurt that the fact that he wrote one song for the Helloween reunion, not Gamma Ray, and he wanted to sing it and he didn't want me to. There was a long talk between me and him and everybody in the band felt it was the wrong way of doing it. It just didn't sound better when he was doing it, but he sounds great in the parts that he did now [in the final version].
Helloween, "Skyfall" Music Video
That was the only argument we really had and it was a bit of an ego thing from his end. He felt like he wanted to be a singer, too, and he didn't have any other parts, which was also partly his fault, because there has been suggestions [for him to sing parts on other songs].
When "Skyfall" was No. 1 in Japan and in England at the same time, he sent me a text saying, "I know it has something to do with your vocals as well and that's what [we're going to] do in the future — I write the songs that you sing, and then we do great stuff."
Thanks to Michael Kiske for the interview. Helloween's self-titled new album comes out on June 18 on Nuclear Blast and pre-orders can be placed here. Follow the band on Facebook, Twitter, Instagram and Spotify.
Top 25 Power Metal Albums of All Time