The Original Power Metal Maniac – Michael Weikath of Helloween

It was the odd intervention of the metal gods with technology while talking to Michael Weikath, the founding guitarist and one of the fellow "fathers of power metal," Helloween. Talking from his home in Tenerife, Spain, he sat down for a few cups of coffee and a very long conversation with Metal as Fuck.

Helloween according to many fans, journalists and associated hangers on are the “founders” of power metal as we know it. Originating in West Germany twenty-five years ago, guitarist Michael “Weiki” Weikath has been one of the constants in the group, belting out power metal tunes alongside some stellar performers that have come and gone as time marched on.

Starting off in a rock band called Powerfool, Michael and Helloween played speed metal numbers such as Oernst of Life (a “made up word” Michael tells us, “It just means bullshit”) and Judas before coming of age in the late 80s with their Keepers of the Seven Keys records.

He played alongside fellow legendary guitarist Kai Hansen, eventually leaving the band in 1991 citing “tour fatigue." He nevertheless formed his own group, Gamma Ray, several months afterward. Helloween was instrumental in creating a new form of metal that was inspired equally by Deep Purple, Rainbow and Judas Priest as much as Queen, The Beatles and even Abba. Abba is so dear to Helloween’s heart, Michael had to tell Tobias Sammet of Edguy an emphatic “NO!” when he attempted to cover “Lay All Your Love on Me” that was destined for a cover on Helloween’s cover’s record entitled Treasure Chest.

“I thought it was obvious because that melody is so Helloween,” he attests. “The same as all the other stuff that was on there like the Cream, David Bowie and Jethro Tull covers – my pick was Juggernaut by Frank Merino. Everything that was particularly Helloween that inspired us to make those melodies then what else could you pick [apart from] Abba?”

Helloween are renowned for their melodic songwriting that straddles the line between bright pop-rock and dark heavy metal; their trademark chattering guitars and vocal harmonies have spawned countless imitators that have struggled and died while Helloween has lived from strength to strength despite the leaving of most founding members (Michael and bassist Markus Grosskopf are the only ones that remain) and even the passing of drummer Ingo Schwichtenberg – he doesn’t take his success for granted, Michael says.

“There’s other bands that could’ve thrived [better] than us but eventually they broke up for whatever reason. I consider ourselves quite lucky to be in the situation we are in. We have a strong line up now, which we hope to maintain for as long as possible. So far there are no reasons you wouldn’t have seen before that would make us doubt that.”

Does Michael keep abreast of the trends in power metal as a genre that he helped create?

“The thing is, I wouldn’t really know,” He says with a small pang of regret. “Because I didn’t quite follow it apart from the usual choice of Italian bands and whatever there is…Well, Dragonforce of course comes to mind. Those are the bands I’m aware of but don’t really follow.”

Helloween’s line up currently consists of long-time vocalist Andi Deris (formerly of Pink Cream 69), Markus and a pair of relative youngsters; (“Don’t tell me I’m not old – I am old!”as Weiki jokes) guitarist Sascha Gerstner and drummer Dani Loble. Despite the young age, Sascha as a guitar “partner” to Michael is a perfect fit.

“He was never interested in the same things as other kids at school,” Weikath explains. “he was interested in the music that other people wouldn’t listen to. He’s been listening to Dokken, Jimi Hendrix and those kinds of things. He listened to Deep Purple. He’s a bit more open minded about things than the generic people around him that are his age. He provides so many different and new things [for the band.] He’s just like a genius master guitarist; technically he’s a lot better than I am! He’s a self-made guy and a very active element in this band.

“He’s someone that we kind of needed because we were all getting too lazy.”

Apart from his own unstinted praise for Sascha, his energetic enthusiasm has garnered Helloween positive reviews with their recent releases, notably The Keeper of the Seven Keys: The Legacy and Gambling With the Devil. Was he a shot in the arm for the band?

“Oh yes,” Michael agrees, “absolutely. That’s the way we see it. It’s the way he sees it too. He came from a professional cover band in the south of Germany. These bands, they are top-notch. You can compare them to [similar] bands that exist in the United States who just make a living out of playing covers who are extremely good. They don’t really do that over here and he came from one of those bands.”

Michael and band hope the trend of positivity continues with the release of their new record, 7 Sinners. Among more “armed” cuts than their non-metal 25th Anniversary record entitled Unarmed that also featured more saxophones than guitars, had a rather curious approach to recording.

“Yes, it’s kind of armed,” Michael dryly assures us. “We used our arms to play it as well – it’s a lot more armed,” he laughs. “It comes along [like] a dreadnaught. If you don’t expect anything bad or whatever and you put the CD into your stereo it’ll hit you like a dreadnaught, yeah. That’s probably something we wanted to achieve and have probably succeeded. That’s a good thing.

“It also has a brilliant sound; it’s been recorded on 432Hz instead of 440Hz because the Earth has a frequency of may be 8Hz or something like that and if you multiply that upwards you want to tune your instruments with that frequency. 440Hz has only been established as a general rule some hundred years ago, by someone. There are some artists that record in 432Hz as well. We just thought in addition to everything we thought to create more magic and have it come across more live we thought we would give it a go.

“We also didn’t have a typical click-track recording this time around and Dani was playing more or less free and the events on his drums were sent on MIDI to his editor so you had a framework of the basic song to work on later on for the [other instruments.] But he more or less played ‘free.’ We had the beat running to compare how well he did, but he didn’t actually use a click-track.

“It was very old-school in a way. We wanted to achieve something extraordinary.”

Adding fun to an otherwise bleak genre has almost become a hallmark of Helloween taking inspiration from Monty Python, much like the classic track Rise and Fall – but it was never their intent to be classified as a “happy” or “frivolous” band.

“I think that comes along naturally because you can’t really predict what Markus is going to write or what I’m going to be about in the tracks that I do or what Deris does or what Gerstner does. So you always gotta wait until the lyrics are finished and then that’s what you have.”

“I mean in Rise and Fall I laughed my ass off when I heard the special effects,” Michael recalls. “I couldn’t stop listening to it and giggling. I mean it’s like the Lumberjack Song by Monty Python, I just wanted to do something similar.

“I did it because I was just sick of that criticism from people that don’t want to have fun.”

Australian metal fans have only recently had a glimpse of Helloween, making their debut in 2008 for a short tour. Michael and company have no immediate plans to come back but would jump at the opportunity, remaining quite knowledgeable of the obstacles that have emerged in the local scene that emerged during his arrival and have worsened since his departure.

“There aren’t any plans but our promoter we had the last time round would do it again; everything ran smoothly the first time we got there and it couldn’t have gone any better. We had great clubs, we had great crowds and we had everything one could wish for.

“Given the circumstances in Australia that rock music is going down and clubs are closing and everything like that, we still had everything. We had a place to play, we had the fans we had everything in place. If we go to Asia and there’s the means and the money to make it a [reality], then certainly we’d love to come back.”

A video has already been shot for the metalhead anthem Are You Metal? That sees the band cavort about in all manner of spooky and stereotypically “metal” ways. Helloween’s videos have always poked fun at themselves and the genre, more cryptically than others would like it, however. Nevertheless, the band revels in making them, especially the fan favorite Perfect Gentleman [Watch it here.]. Michael shares some fun facts with us:

“You know, that video was voted the most tasteless video ever made on some kind of website,” he laughs. “It was so ridiculous at least we made it [tasteless!]…we were even voted the ugliest band in Hit Parader one time.”

Michael takes it all in his stride, however.

“It doesn’t matter whether you win an award in either the good or bad extreme, it doesn’t matter. As long as you achieve something.”