The Bard and his Songs – An audience with Hansi Kursch of Blind Guardian

Now you all know the bards and their songs. With an illustrious career spanning over twenty years, Blind Guardian are as ambitious as ever. Hansi talks shop about the new record as well as the orchestral project, his love for Aussie power ballads and that damn haircut…

When I was first discovering metal as a kid that would wish his hair would hurry up and grow past his shoulders, I entered the wonderful world of power metal. A site dedicated to Iron Maiden Commentary recommended a select few bands and one of them was Blind Guardian.

Unbeknownst to me, Blind Guardian was almost the golden standard in power metal, setting and raising the bar with every record. Starting off as “Lucifers’ Heritage” in 1987, they settled into the name “Blind Guardian” with their first record, Battalions of Fear that revolved around fantasy themes and dealt mainly with the work of J.R.R Tolkien, a major source of inspiration for the band. With only one line-up change in a genre that’s known for its revolving door policy, vocalist Hansi Kursch along with longtime creative partner Andre Olbrich, rhythm guitarist Marcus Siepen and young new drummer Fredrik Ehmke (who also plays bagpipes and flutes!) their music is as unmistakable as it is rousing.

Working through their speed metal style, they tread into symphonic and folk territory on their watershed record Somewhere Far Beyond yielding the acoustic fan classic, “The Bard’s Song – In the Forest” which has become mandatory on the set-list ever since. They’ve tried their hand with thrashy material (Imaginations from the Other Side), theatrical concepts (Nightfall in Middle-Earth) progressive metal (A Night at the Opera) and always have their fingers in one project or another all the while. This time around they’ve been working on their highly anticipated orchestral project and creating new music for the fantasy themed RPG game Sacred 2.

Even though the inimitable Hansi Kursch is arguably one of the finest and most powerful voices in modern heavy metal, he has almost shamed his legacy by doing the unthinkable – cutting off his long, manly locks. I had to investigate. Why, Hansi, Why?!

He laughs it off – and why not, he bleeds metal from his pores!

“Because,” he says, speaking idiosyncratically softly compared to his usually rousing voice, “I want to start a new fashion.” I can’t help but scoff on behalf of every metalhead ever. He cheekily tries to convince me otherwise.

“People will follow me soon, you will see! There won’t be any more long hair on metal guys any more.” He says in all seriousness. I agreed with him – on their DVD, Imaginations through the Looking Glass recorded almost six years ago, he cut his hair to shoulder length and people dropped to their knees and worshipped the new ‘do.

“That’s very true,” he replies, flabbergasted at the depth of my fanboyish research. “I’m so surprised that it’s made such an impact and you know, I did have short hair for almost two years now. I cut it off after we finished work on Sacred, the computer game. It was such a big surprise because we did some shows afterward and I thought people were aware already. Since Bruce Dickinson [vocalist, Iron Maiden] and Rob Halford [vocalist, Judas Priest] have broken that taboo some years back, I thought I should be in good company but I was wrong! Many many people realize and say ‘Oh wow, Hansi has short hair – that’s stupid!’ It was funny, but…that’s the way it is.”

Working on Sacred 2, a fantasy RPG based in the mythical world of Ancaria, full of dryads and wizards and elves is the fare of Blind Guardian through and through. Though their metal brothers Sonata Arctica are developing a game based on their lyrics and stories, Hansi says that Blind Guardian wouldn’t be interested in that – in fact, contrary to popular belief, Hansi isn’t much of a gamer.

“I don’t play at all,” he confesses matter-of-factly. “I like reading, I like watching movies, I like hanging around, drinking beer and watching sport or whatever but I don’t like to play computer games. From time to time I do when my son feels the urge but usually I don’t. It’s more Andre and Marcus that are totally into computer games. They were big fans of the first Sacred so it was no question whether we would like to do the song or not.

In general, if a computer game company would like to work with us for a concept I would certainly love to do so. But as for a game based on lyrics I’ve already done it’s a tricky challenge and I don’t see any reason to do it.”

Much like games, their themes have run the gamut from their well renowned fantasy, science-fiction, philosophy and even politics on occasion. But as for exploring even further away from their niche, Hansi feels he’s reached the edge of the map.

“Firstly, I have to say the music demands the lyrical content and how we relate to it. I think music always speaks a magical language. It should lead you somewhere without words or explicit meanings to the lyrics. That’s the first thing. I think I would realize and have recognized what I have not spoken on so far and what is probably necessary to be said in terms of the music.

“I feel that, over the years, I have developed a sense of the right lyrical direction. But I would say we might write a song differently like Fly (on previous album A Twist in the Myth) and I will come up with a different topic that is necessary for the song.”

Though the intellectual rigor is required, the physical preparation is also important for Hansi. He got himself into gear for the recording of At the Edge of Time with a strict routine and worked extraordinarily hard on the record every day.

“I get up around six or seven o’clock each morning and I start working on ideas.” he explains. “Andre comes along a bit later and we’ve been doing it the same way. We are singing and songwriting as our daily work. We really keep our focus on each single item in a song. I mean, there is no miracle cure or miracle recipe for writing songs, of course.”

The album itself, is “very diverse, very bombastic and orchestral album but there’s also a lot of thrash and speed metal elements,” he says, beaming with pride.

“It also has a lot of the multi-cultural, ethnic, Celtic, folky ways that we have featured in Blind Guardian in the past as well. It’s a wide mixture but again, it’s a very natural mixture which we didn’t really keep our focus on when we were doing songwriting. All of the songs have individual strengths to them which makes it easy to listen to – after sixty-five minutes of listening, it will not feel like you have been listening that long.”

“I believe it will attract old school fans, even though they didn’t like A Twist in the Myth and A Night at the Opera—“ I cut him off mid sentence to say whomever didn’t like those records probably had something wrong in the head. (I admitted to being a complete fanboy as a disclaimer for Hansi at the beginning of the interview.)

“I know!” he exclaims. “I don’t have a problem! But this album probably explains why we did those kinds of albums. But you know, sometimes fans like to complain about music. I think there’s a difference amongst the countries and continents that makes it difficult for us – there are different tastes.”

Despite the dissent, Blind Guardian have been described as the most “influential power metal band of all time” by a variety of magazines and websites. How does the band and Hansi react to that?

“Well, power metal is only one element of Blind Guardian,” he says humbly. “Of course, it makes us proud but we consider each album as a new challenge to come up with a new element. I think whoever said that was looking at us as they look at music in general. It of course makes me very optimistic and happy.

“We did an interview for a TV show in America – for a Canadian station way back when. They also related Blind Guardian strongly to power metal; I’m sometimes very surprised about that. Some people have considered us a plain metal band, a speed metal band or an orchestral metal band – whatever! But for me power metal is more related to the American style of metal in the late 80s that was inspired by the British New Wave of Heavy Metal such as Vicious Rumors – that’s the perfect power metal band for me.

“But at the same time people think that Blind Guardian is doing power metal the same time that Hammerfall is doing power metal and there’s such a big difference between these two bands – I wouldn’t even say Hammerfall is power metal! I mean, we are just metal inspired music and that’s all that matters. It just has to be hard music and heavy music to be metal.”

Moving away from metal, Hansi and company chose the almost ubiquitous Australian classic power ballad, You’re The Voice by John Farnham to cover as a B-side. Though it seems like a complete non sequitur for us fans, for Hansi it was a very personal and reverential tribute to one of his favorite and most respected vocalists.

John Farnham belongs [on the list] of the best vocalists of all time. I just have to make that clear. He belongs to the top notch of vocalists. I’m not talking about the peanut [gallery] vocalists I’m talking about the real vocalists such as Peter Gabriel. He’s on the ultimate peak you can reach. As a vocalist, I’m not even worthy to be his apprentice’s apprentice.” He says while humbling himself.

“When we did Batallions of Fear and Follow the Blind, we’d only listen to metal music. That was about the time when You’re the Voice was a major success in Germany. It went to Number 1 and stayed there for quite a while. It was in constant rotation on radio. Even during my ‘metal’ days I realized that song was very expressive, strong and had elements that, later on, became very important for Blind Guardian without being a significant influence.

“You could even say that the chorus of You’re the Voice could be on any Blind Guardian album. The way it was approached? Its like it was almost destined to become a Blind Guardian song one day. That’s the reason why we did it – we liked that song and it has such a longevity and such a strength that we as metalheads back in the 80s even considered to be good. It wasn’t a big discussion amongst us; even though it was a tough challenge, it was a very enjoyable one. I think we made the right choice.”

Blind Guardian have only come to Australian shores once for a whirlwind “two night only” show in Melbourne – but Hansi is adamant that they will return for a proper and thorough tour encompassing most of the continent.

“We’ve spoken to the organizer who took us over the first time we went to America and Australia as well and he’s definitely looking for a chance to get us to Australia again. We were even talking about a New Years Eve show [referring to Screamfest] but we had to give up the idea due to our schedule. Nothing is set up now, but I’m really confident that we are going to come back some time in 2011 and we will hopefully just play more than Melbourne – maybe at least Sydney and one other city would be nice and to have a day off to do some sightseeing too!”

If you thought the Blind Guardian train had pulled into the station for the time being for a holiday – think again. Their orchestral project that has been in development for over fourteen years is still a way off completion and Hansi is palpable with excitement for it. Contrary to popular belief, it’s not just a pet project or a hobby – it’s as intensely focused and meticulous as their main work.

“We never consider any of our music to be a hobby,” Hansi insists. “It’s always [one of our] babies. It’s probably the baby that’s been given the most careful attention of all our babies so far. We’ve accomplished ten songs and we’ve worked with several orchestras but with some we didn’t really come up with an enjoyable result. The orchestra we used for the Wheel of Time and Sacred Worlds on the album also recorded three songs for the orchestral project. We’re going to continue that through August prior to our touring plans. Hopefully I’ll be able to do some vocal recording for it in early 2011. Hopefully it will all be finished in 2012.”
And what can fans expect?

“It will be a beautiful, fourteen year old baby. We also promise not to write any crap.”

Enough said.