By Aniruddh “Andrew” Bansal
More than two decades after releasing the two ever-amazing “Keeper Of The Seven Keys” albums, ex-Helloween members Michael Kiske and Kai Hansen have rejoined forces once again, and along with guitarist Mandy Meyer, bassist Dennis Ward and drummer Kosta Zafiriou, they have formed a new band named Unisonic. The self-titled debut album will hit North American markets on May 22nd 2012 via Eagle Rock’s Armoury Records. Fans of early Helloween and Gamma Ray will find Unisonic’s music to be equally strong and catchy, and it’s been proven yet again that the combination of Kai Hansen’s signature songwriting style and Michael Kiske’s vocals is a match made in heaven. Yesterday, on April 20th 2012, I got a chance to speak to Michael about this album, how his vocals have changed with age, performing Helloween songs, and future plans. Enjoy the conversation, and check out Unisonic on the web by visiting one of the links listed below.
The Unisonic debut album comes out next month. First of all, tell me about how long it has taken you guys to put the music together for this one.
Well, it was a bit of a long journey because the band was getting together quite slowly. We started off with the basic idea in about 2009, when Kosta and Dennis were contacting me about this idea of doing a real band. And very quickly, Dennis added Mandy Meyer to make it a four-piece band. We did two festivals in 2010, and we started to write songs and stuff. In those festivals we played mainly past material because we were not very far with the songwriting of the Unisonic tunes at the time. We wrote a lot of stuff, but somehow it needed this extra creative force of Kai Hansen to complete the thing, which happened around 2010. We were on stage together with Avantasia, and toured several places in the world. It was a lot of flying. I think we had one or two shows in Switzerland, then one show in Sweden, one more in Germany, then Tokyo, Mexico, Argentina, Brazil, and two more shows in Germany. It was the first time Kai and I were on stage together again. We just thought that there was a great thing going on. We’ve always had a good relationship even after the Helloween years anyway, but we never thought of doing something together like this until we were on stage together with Avantasia. After that it didn’t take long for me to suggest him to join Unisonic. From that day on, I think everything fell into place very quickly. I personally think that he was the last missing piece the band was looking for.
Did you feel that the songwriting went through a big change when Kai arrived in the band?
Well, he has his own ways. I like him and his songwriting anyway, and I know him for a number of years now. I was always a fan of the things he was doing. When he comes into a band like Unisonic and starts working on material, he does it in his own way. Dennis Ward, who is an American, he also has his own ways and he writes beautiful songs. It’s not that Dennis can’t write great songs, but Kai has his own style of pushing things around, and as soon as he has his hand involved, things get more interesting, at least for my ears. It just gets more of an edge. Kai has a talent for nailing things down to the basics and throw out useless stuff. I think pretty much all the songs gained a lot after he joined the band. It’s just my personal opinion. May be there are people who don’t see this as dramatically as I do, but I really think Kai is a huge plus to Unisonic.
The main question in the fans’ minds would be, how does Unisonic’s music compare to the Helloween material that you did a number of years back?
To me, there’s not much of a difference. I’m still myself, you know. I’m a different person of course, it’s been 23 years since the Keeper days. Kai has changed too. I think when I sing stuff that he has written, it always sounds like Helloween in a certain way, because that’s just how we sound. I don’t believe in a record production that attempts to sound like records of the past, trying to fake the sound on purpose. I would never go for that. I think that’s really wrong, but we’re just ourselves, and as much as that’s the case, I think we do sound the way we always sounded. Of course, there are other people in the band now. Mandy, Dennis and Kosta are different people as compared to Michael Weikath, Ingo and Markus [members of Helloween’s ‘Keeper’ lineup]. So for that matter it sounds different, but nobody knows what the next Helloween record after Keeper II would have sounded like, if Kai was still in the band at that time. It might have sounded like that, but we were never the type of band that repeated itself, you know. We always tried to break some new grounds creatively, and I think that’s why those Keeper records even to this day appeal to younger people. There was some kind of a ‘no fear’ spirit going on, just enjoying the time and making the best out of each song, not worrying too much, and that’s what I loved about that time. To a certain extent, it’s still the same way with Unisonic. There is still a spirit going on between me and Kai, which reminds me a lot of that time.
Vocally, have you done anything different on this album, or is it the same style that we’ve known you for over the years?
I think I’m a lot better now (laughs). I can’t really listen to myself on the Keeper I and II records. I was a baby then. I was like eighteen years old when I did the vocals for Keeper I. Same for Keeper II, I was nineteen at the time. The vocal chords were not fully developed when you’re at that age. For a man, you have to cross the age of 30 for your vocal chords to really develop. So I think in terms of the sound of my voice, I’m a lot better these days than I was back then. I sound a lot fuller, and I don’t have to kick my ass that much to sound good out there, you know. Of course as a person I have developed, so my singing has improved. The vocal performance always depends on the personality. I’m 44 years old now, and I’ve been through experiences. I’m not a teenager anymore. I’m a grown man now, and I think all that benefits the performance I’m able to give.
Obviously, you got better with age in terms of your voice. But not every singer is able to do that. Some get worse with age. Do you think that’s just natural, or is there something singers can do to improve with age?
Absolutely. I mean, singing has a lot to do with your head. I don’t have problems with my voice unless I’m having a bad time. When my soul is down, then I begin to have problems with voice, but when I feel good about things, I can sing without any problem. I think it’s pretty much the same for every singer when it comes to technique. If you do things right, there is no reason you’d lose your voice. It will change over the years, but not necessarily in a bad way, and if you’re aware of what you’re doing, you’ll be capable of singing great, and you’ll be able to do everything you used to do when you were young. As long as you deal with the changes in your voice and learn how to do things differently, you can enjoy singing your whole life, actually. When singers lose their voice, either it’s a mental problem, or they do something wrong to burn the voice. You should always try to avoid violating your voice as a singer.
Coming back to Unisonic, what was the idea behind the band’s name? Did you feel that the music will have a universal appeal, and may be that’s why it’s named Unisonic?
Yeah, that’s what I like about the name. I remember when we were fooling around with lots of ideas in terms of names. I don’t think it’s easy to find a decent name for a band. On one side you don’t want it to sound overblown and stupid, but you also don’t want it to sound meaningless. We had two names containing the words Unison and Sonic. Kosta, who was telling me these two names, just put them together and came up with Unisonic, and I thought that’s great! It’s a new word, and you can read the words Unison and Sonic, or as ‘Universally Sonic’, and it has a meaning. It’s about making music in unison somehow, you know.
Do you think that Unisonic is your full-time band now, or will you still get time for other solo projects that you’ve been doing recently?
Unisonic is my main thing now. I have not been in a real, proper band for over 17 years. I was fooling around with my own stuff, and I had a long number of years when I was not so interested. I did my stuff, but I was mainly concentrating on other things. It’s different now, and I really enjoy this, specially because Kai is part of the band. I’ll try to enjoy it every day, as much as I can. It’s my main priority, but since Kai is also still in Gamma Ray, he will need some time to take care of Gamma Ray too. When he has a Gamma Ray year, may be next year he’ll do a Gamma Ray record and touring or whatever, I’ll use that time to do something else. I don’t think I’ll be doing solo records the way I used to do them on my own. I’ll probably hook up with a friend of mine and do something different now, something more focussed. On my solo records, I was basically just howling around things. There was not much of a red line to what I was doing, and I was not very focussed. That will be different now. When Kai takes time for Gamma Ray, I’ll be doing something different too, which I think will be very interesting. But of course, Unisonic will always be my main priority.
That’s great to hear. There’s a cover of Helloween’s “I Want Out” as a bonus track on this album. So, can we expect to see Unisonic performing Helloween material on stage?
Yeah, we have to do that. Of course, we only play the stuff that we have written. Kai has done a lot of tunes for the the Keeper tunes. He played them over the last 20 years in Gamma Ray shows anyway, and when you take my songs and his songs, that’s a huge portion of the Helloween material that we have written. And now that Kai and I are together in a band, it would be pretty stupid if we wouldn’t play those songs. Fans just love that stuff. Unisonic is its own band, and we’ll try to establish this band on its own. We are not a Helloween revival band or anything like that, but as a bonus, we’ll certainly play a couple of Helloween tracks here and there, that’s for sure. It’s great fun.
It will be amazing to see, I’m sure. That brings me to the final question, what touring plans does Unisonic have for the rest of this year?
Next month we’ll be doing a little South American tour, which will be about 12-14 days. We’re really looking forward to that. After that, we have lots of festivals over here in Europe, and then, when the year comes to its end we’ll be playing Japan, Korea, Taiwan, and we’ll even be doing some touring in Russia, believe it or not. So there’s a lot of live performances that we’re planning to do. We don’t want an overkill, but this year is mainly about playing live. Lots of festivals, specially over here in Europe.