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Interview conducted January 27 2016
Interview published January 30 2016

"Until they found out how much worse it could get in the future."

Metal Covenant met up with a quite sleepy Tobias Sammet in Stockholm, Sweden, on his promotion tour for his brand new Avantasia album Ghostlights [Out January 29th]. Despite having missed out on a good night's sleep, the German did his best to stick up to his reputation of being a funny and humble guy and all of his answers are surely not 100 percent serious, so you may have to see a few of them just for what they are.

"Real work… You could be my mother, or my grandmother."

We started off talking about the new album of course, but Tobias after a while unintentionally pushed this conversation more towards his main band Edguy and after talking about his participation in the Eurovision Song Contest, he also took the opportunity to slam their old record company and talk about his financials early on in his career.

"I think without me that company would have gone bankrupt like 7 times or something."

Tobbe: Why should anyone buy this new Avantasia album, instead of buying something else that's released at this point?

Tobias: Because it's all for a good cause. It's a charity record. It's all for the wallet of a starving musician. [Laughs] No. Why? Because it's just the greatest thing that you can get for such an amount of money. It's so much fun that you can buy for those €15 and it's probably worth twice as much. But I think it's just a great album. We put so much sweat and effort in it.

The creative process and the production didn't really feel like work, but still we put so much effort into every detail and everything is done top notch. We tried to make sure the quality is in there, in every aspect. And it's an honest album. It's not just an album that I did because I had to do it. In fact I didn't have to do it at all. It's an album that I really wanted to do. Pretty much like everything else I do. I just really, really, really think it's a great album.

Tobbe: But still you had to do it, because it's part 2 of the story that you started with The Mystery Of Time.

Tobias: Yeah, but, you know, legally I wouldn't have been in trouble if I hadn't done it. There wouldn't have been anybody saying "We're gonna sue you! You said that The Mystery Of Time was just part 1.". I just had that material and I thought it was just great.

Tobbe: Is having a conceptual story on an Avantasia album a necessity, or could you ever release an Avantasia album without a distinctive story?

Tobias: No, I don't think so. I mean, Sascha [Paeth, producer, guitar, bass, keyboards] said we can, but Sascha says a lot of things that don't make sense, you know. [Laughs] But I don't think so. In the beginning, the first two Avantasia albums were metal operas, and the expression Metal Opera did not exist back then. I just came up with it. I just wanted it to be something like Andrew Lloyd Webber's The Phantom Of The Opera. The name of the band was back then meant to be the name of the story of the concept. So that was what I had in mind, but it became something so much bigger. Still I wanted it to be perceived as a conceptual thing. The concept is not called Avantasia anymore. Avantasia is the term for the whole thing.

Tobbe: What do you personally think are Ghostlights' strongest elements?

Tobias: Well, the diversity, I think. It's the diversity that makes Ghostlights what it is. It's 12 songs + the bonus track, but those 12 songs, that is the main part of the album, are so diverse and yet it has such a beautiful flow. We have stuff like world music elements on there, Isle Of Evermore. We have, what people would consider European power metal or speed metal, you know, like Ghostlights and Unchain The Light, or even that track with Marco Hietala [Nightwish] Master Of The Pendulum, or Let The Storm Descend Upon You, which to me sounds like it was inspired by Richard Wagner, because it builds up, and it takes so much time, and then you're about to witness the song explode, and then it explodes, but it explodes into a new part of the song, that builds up again and builds up again.

It takes 4 minutes until it reaches the first chorus. In pop music, you know, then you're already in the next song after 4 minutes. So there is so much diversity in it and so many great and different vocalists and all different sorts of elements. I think that's the character of the album, the diversity, but still it doesn't feel like it's a collection of different things. It's still one thing.

Tobbe: Your fans, to a fairly large extent, crave kind of different types of music. Some like power metal and some like the more bombastic stuff. So do you have that in mind, when you write a record, to make it diverse to suit all the fans?

Tobias: No. You know, the most honest thing you can give to yourself and to the fans is something that you feel and you don't feel it if you think of expectations from other people. So I really hope that the fans like it and I can assure everybody that I put a lot of work and effort into the music. But I would never play music to please anybody. That would be even disrespectful to the people, who you then apparently are trying to please, because you would underestimate fans who want honest music from you. They can find out if they like it or not, but at least they get something honest.

If you respect a person, you give them your honesty. You tell a good friend what you think and not what he wants to hear and I play the music that I feel like doing and not the music that someone wants to hear. That's the most honest thing. But I respect if somebody says "I don't like what you do.". You have to respect that. I mean, that's a normal thing. But still I can look in the mirror and say "Whatever I sold you, in my entire life, it was always honest. It was always what I really wanted to do.". It would be cheap if I was just starring at my fans' wallets. That's not the spirit of rock 'n' roll. That's just ass kissing.

Tobbe: What is the most important thing when you make a record nowadays?

Tobias: Oh. I have not a clue. I mean, it's got to be cool, it's got to sound good, it's got to have great songs, great performance. I mean, the whole thing. It's got to be valuable and honest. But what's the most important thing? I mean, there's so many important things about a new record. It's got to be great. That's a universal answer, I know. But that's the truth. You know, you've got to be happy with it, because it will be attached to your career forever.

I mean, for other people, the producer, the record company, it will be just a brief romance. Even for some listeners it's just a brief thing. You will be forever attached to the record, so I have to live with those records forever. For example, if you look at some albums we did with Edguy. I remember when we did Rocket Ride, a lot of people were disappointed that it was not Hellfire Club. Looking back now, I think Rocket Ride is one of our best albums. I can live with that album, and I could live with it back then. I was fully aware that it was not a rip-off of Hellfire Club, but I would have felt guilty if I would have delivered a rip-off of Hellfire Club, because I already had charged people for that album.

Why would I wanna charge them, for a cheaper edition of Hellfire Club, just in order for someone to hopefully like it? Rocket Ride was different, but it's a great album and looking back now I think it was the right step to take and I'm proud of that album.

Tobbe: I think the fans really loved Hellfire Club and then you came out with a more mellow album, which is actually a pretty good album too, but it was different, so I think that the fans were disappointed in the beginning, until they had really learned the album.

Tobias: Until they found out how much worse it could get in the future. [Laughs] You know, with Tinnitus Sanctus, everybody said "Jesus Christ! By the time Rocket Ride came out I thought it was a shit album, but now I have to say that it's much better than what was to come out later on.". It's a cool strategy, because retrospectively everybody thinks "Well, it wasn't that bad in the past.", you know. And then we did Age Of The Joker, with that retro sound. I love it and people said "What the fuck! Now you have even forgot how to make the album sound great.". No, we knew exactly what we were doing.

Tobbe: So which is your best album?

Tobias: It's really hard to say. I don't wanna say the best, because you cannot compare albums. Rocket Ride is different than Hellfire Club. Hellfire Club is different than Tinnitus Sanctus. You cannot really say that one is better and one is worse. It depends on the mood and everything. But I think if somebody would ask me "Which are my favorite albums of Edguy?" I would probably say Space Police and Rocket Ride.

Tobbe: To have development in your music is obviously important to you, but where do you think that your development will end in the future? Will you perhaps sometimes go to lighter music and then jump back to heavier music again?

Tobias: I have not a clue. I don't see any tendency towards anything. I think that it can get boring to do the same thing over and over again. That doesn't mean that I don't wanna play rock music or metal music over and over, but I don't wanna be doing exactly the same thing. So I think the fact that we are so diverse, and the fact that we are not afraid of making fools out of ourselves, and the fact that we're not afraid of incorporating new elements in our music, like world music, Love Tyger sounds a little bit like Van Halen, is why it doesn't get boring. We're allowed to do all these things and that's great. So I have not a clue.

There is no direction. What I have found out is that I like singing more than I used to do in the past, because a lot of the stuff, for example on Hellfire Club and also on the re-recording of the Savage Poetry, is not really singing. A lot of what I did back then was just vocal stunts. It was just trying to find out where my extremes were and just squeezing out. Sometimes for The Savage Poetry and also Hellfire Club and all the albums in between pretty much, Mandrake and also Theater Of Salvation, I remember that we would sing like 5 hours for 2 lines.

Repeating them again and again and again, trying to move it a little bit higher. It was sports. And now everybody says "Oh. It was great back then.". Yeah. I can sense it was extreme, but it was not what I consider singing. So I'm really much more happy with the vocal stuff I do nowadays. I like softer music as well, but first and foremost I like music where the vocals can do something and contribute. What I don't like so much about Hellfire Club is that I was constantly screaming against a wall of sound, and that's not fun, you know.

When we play nowadays, we might play The Piper Never Dies or sometimes Mysteria and it's not just fun. I hate singing it, because it's just screaming against a wall of sound. But listening to the music we did back then, I think it's great. It's really great and I think also what I did sounds good, but the way it came together was sometimes a bit painful. [Laughs]

Tobbe: But you're like 12 years older now and you have learned stuff along the road.

Tobias: Yeah. I've learned to do things that I naturally feel. You know, sometimes when I sing live I sing songs completely differently. Ballads, like Save Me and stuff. I've done completely different stuff now, just because you're getting older and you get more fun by trying other things out. But I don't see a tendency towards anything.

I think Space Police, for example, is one of the heaviest albums we've ever done with Edguy, so I cannot say we necessarily go towards softer regions. Same with Ghostlights. I mean, I can't judge it, I'm still too close to the album, but a lot of people say it's way heavier than the previous one, The Mystery Of Time. It wasn't meant to be like that, but it just happened. So this proves there's no tendency of me becoming more mellow.

Tobbe: You know, Avantasia's music and Edguy's music go a little bit hand in hand naturally...

Tobias: Absolutely, yeah.

Tobbe: … and is it hard to separate those two bands when you enter the songwriting process?

Tobias: No, because I simply work only with one at a time. So if I would have a great song idea tonight, which is not very likely, because I'm on a promotion tour and I'm lacking like 35 hours of sleep. But if I would have a great song idea tonight, it would be for Edguy, because I know subconsciously I've just finished an Avantasia album. I know naturally that the next thing I will work on is an Edguy album, so that's what it would be.

Tobbe: Was it ever your intention to get Avantasia to be an even more popular band than Edguy is?

Tobias: No, and in some territories Edguy is bigger than Avantasia, although I can't imagine one right now. [Laughs] In Japan, I think, and maybe in the U.S. as well. But I'm not sure. Let's see how this tour with Avantasia goes down in the U.S. and then I can tell you. Maybe Avantasia is bigger there as well? But, no. It was not planned to be like that, but I don't really complain. I mean, I understand the question, but a lot of people see it as a competition. I was asked a similar question the other day, like "Is this a problem for you?" and I said "No".

There's not many things matching being in a successful band, but one thing that definitely beats being in one successful band is being in two successful bands.". So I won't complain that Avantasia is more successful in some territories than Edguy. It's just a gift and I can't complain. I mean, Edguy is touring the world, playing 1000 people a night as well and in some territories we're playing 3000 people a night. I talked to Eric Singer [Kiss, drums] once about it and he said "Once you have come to a point, where you have reached this, you're in a luxury position.".

Tobbe: Do you think that Edguy suffers a little bit, because of you playing with Avantasia as well?

Tobias: Ah, yeah, maybe. But on the other hand, Edguy benefits so much from Avantasia's success. Right in the beginning we did The Metal Opera with Avantasia and before that Edguy was just an up-and-coming band. After that Edguy was established. The Metal Opera came out, went through the roof and sold really a lot. I don't know how many copies, but right off the bat, I think like 150000-200000 copies right away, which were something we could have never dreamed of with Edguy.

And then Mandrake came out and we were going on a world tour. It was our first headlining tour, so definitely it helped. Then also I worked with Rudolf [Schenker] and Klaus [Meine] on The Scarecrow and a few months later we were asked if we wanted to join the Scorpions tour with Edguy. Maybe we would be in the studio right now to record a new Edguy album, if I wouldn't have done Avantasia, but I need Avantasia as diversity and I need that room. I really love being in Edguy. We are 5 friends and discuss everything and it's like I'm married to 4 musicians.

I love working with them, but it can drive you insane as well, because we discuss everything. People ask we what's the difference between working with Avantasia and working with Edguy and I always say that I give 100 percent for both, but in Edguy 90 percent goes into discussions with my "husbands" and in Avantasia 100 percent goes into the creativity. So with Edguy everything takes much, much longer. It's much more work. Even though I'm a dictator in a way, I still want everybody to be happy. I'll go "Do you think that this…?" and then you have all these different opinions and that makes you seasick. You know, I'm definitely happy I can sometimes just go out and do things very spontaneously.

A lot of people think there's a lot of strategy involved with Avantasia and think I have a plan for everything, but no, everything happens really, really spontaneously. Absolutely. I just say "Oh. We'll do it this way." and I have nobody arguing, but in Edguy you can be sure there's at least 2 people that says "Are you sure? I think we should start a telephone conference about this.".

Tobbe: We've got to talk a little bit about the Eurovision Song Contest as well. So what originally made you come up with the idea to participate in that contest?

Tobias: I didn't have the idea. I got a phone call from the record company [Nuclear Blast] and they asked me "Would you like to do it?" and I said "Yeah. I wanna do it.", because it's a great promotional opportunity and that's pretty much it. I don't have any emotional attachment to the contest itself and I don't have any emotional attachment to the idea of being the King of Europe, you know, although I've got that Napoleon syndrome in me. You know, I know what my fans think of me and I know what my scene thinks of our work and that's all that matters. I don't really care what the mainstream thinks, but if I can reach a few of those "lost souls"… [Laughs]

Tobbe: But it will be a good window to a bigger world.

Tobias: Yeah, absolutely, and that's why I said I'm gonna do it. 3 minutes to show the whole world that we exist. Almost 6 million people in Germany and then a couple of hundreds of millions, you know, in Sweden, if we make it to there, which I don't think we will, I have to say. It's really difficult, because, you know, there's a lot of people, I think, who have proper voices, who can sing, and then me in between, you know. And also there's a lot of people in the world with big media exposure.

In Germany, you know, there's this Voice of Germany winner and she has probably quite a beautiful voice and I think she's a young girl, looking good, having a beautiful voice, having a perfectly artificially put together song for that purpose. And then I come with a classic rock track, Mystery Of A Blood Red Rose. I'm having a fanbase, but I'm not on prime-time television once or twice a week, so I don't know if it's a fair chance that I have. But I just see it as a way to promote myself, a way to promote Avantasia and as a great, great, funny thing.

Tobbe: Do you meet very much different media during this period now and not only the heavy metal media?

Tobias: Well, most of it is just the heavy metal medias. I don't think that I reach much more mainstream media now. A little more, yes, but just some gossip tabloids in Germany.

Tobbe: And what do they wanna know?

Tobias: Funny things. I remember last week. There was this one photographer from the German Press Agency and he said like "Can you please take off your shirt? Our customers wanna see your tattoos." and I said "Yeah, but I don't have any tattoos." and he said "Oh yes, you're supposed to have it. My boss told me." and I said like "Listen. I don't know what your boss told you, but I don't have any tattoos on my whole body.". Then like "Okay. Can you strike a real heavy metal pose and do something really mean?" and I said "Like listen. It doesn't work like that. I'm new to this scene that you're working for. My rule is that I'm standing here and you can take a picture and if it's great you can sell it to whomever you want. But I make the rules. You make the photo.".

And other people came asking like "How is it with groupies?", "Do you destroy a lot of hotel rooms?". I've smashed a TV once in my life and that was not because I felt like a rock star, but because I was playing PlayStation and I was losing. And that's true. It was on a German tour. I was playing PlayStation and I kicked away my shoe into the television and I had to pay for it. I wanted to pay for it. I didn't just wanna go away and not telling them.

Tobbe: Why did you, or someone else, pick that specific song to be in the contest?

Tobias: I picked the song because it was the only song that could be cut down to 3 minutes. Other songs are 8, 9, 12 minutes long and they have guest vocalists, like Jørn Lande and Michael Kiske and whoever. It is the first single and the first single is quite an accessible track. It's a great advantage that it is a single and we have a video for that one. The song is already getting some radio airplay on rock stations in Germany. I just thought that that was naturally it and I didn't wanna shoot a video for a second single, because shooting videos sucks.

Tobbe: And they cost money too.

Tobias: Well, that's not the issue. You can shoot cheap videos. You know, if I act in those videos they look cheap anyway, no matter how much money you spend. [Laughs] You know, it's so ridiculous, there's always make-up people saying like "Oh. You won't see that later on, on film." and then you look like some 19th century whore. "You don't see that afterwards.". That's the biggest lie of make-up people for photo sessions and video shootings. You look ridiculous and I hate shooting videos.

Tobbe: You have only announced one concert in Sweden with Avantasia this year and that's at the Sweden Rock Festival, making us miss out on your 3 hour + show here in Sweden, which I think blows.

Tobias: Yeah, yeah, yeah. [A little bit hesitant.] You're absolutely right, but we thought it was a great chance to play Sweden Rock. I think we're gonna play over 2 hours at least, so that's not too bad and we will try to squeeze in as much Avantasia as possible, so it's not a complete bummer. But we thought it's just a great show coming over here. You know, I love Sweden Rock Festival. It's an amazing festival and also, you know, this is one of the few festivals that I would even attend just as a viewer, and I'm not a festival hopper and I'm not a concert goer.

But the mood there, the weather, the people, everybody's so relaxed. Swedish people are great. It's all these great classic rock bands, the great ones, and that's typically my music. You know, at Sweden Rock I've seen Journey, I've seen Def Leppard, I have seen Poison. Well, Poison is not so good, but you know. [Laughs] Treat. I've seen Treat. I love Treat. Absolutely. [Sings parts of the choruses to Sole Survivor and to World Of Promises] So cheesy. So great.

Tobbe: In Flames actually once did a cover of World Of Promises.

Tobias: Really? It's a great, great song. I wish we'd do that.

Tobbe: You started making records when you were very young, so do you actually know anything about working a real job outside the music industry?

Tobias: Real work… You could be my mother, or my grandmother. Real job… Yeah, yeah. Like "Did you actually ever work?". You know, I think I'm working more than any of my friends, you know, working with real jobs. I just don't perceive it as work, but I'm busy with what I do all the time. But no. never. I went to school for 12 years and I graduated and I had the grades to go further. But then I just did my civil service and that was like a substitution for military service. During my civil service we recorded Vain Glory Opera and that was the first album that sold really well.

We didn't make any money from it, because we had the wrong record company [AFM], but it sold really well actually. Somebody made real money from it, but not so much we. I think without me that company would have gone bankrupt like 7 times or something. They screwed us over with that immoral deal, but I just don't complain publicly. Now I do actually. But I haven't done that so far, because it was also a beautiful start for a beautiful career of mine. You know, I will get the rights back in 40 years and I just get peanuts and they just re-release stuff all the time and make a lot of money. Well, not nice.

Anyway, I finished that civil service thing and I realized that I made enough money from the music to cover the phone bills and to afford driving a car. And after that, the next album was Theater Of Salvation and that album already sold like, I don't know, like 60000-70000. Still we had a shitty deal. We didn't make much money. But that same year I signed the contract for the first Avantasia album and that's when I, we could say, was making real money. I mean, not big money, but I was not making less than… any other Formula One race driver. [Laughs]

No, it wasn't like that. But I had never seen like anything like 3000 Deutsche Marks on the table at the same time and all of a sudden, I don't know how much I made, but there was like 70000-80000 Deutsche Marks on the table, just for me, plus the budget for the recording and stuff I didn't know. That was just like "Wow! This is gonna keep me going for 3 or 4 or 5 years.".

Tobbe: But I think you should start counting from 1995 when you made you first record [Savage Poetry] and if you count those years and spread it out, then it's not so much money.

Tobias: No , that's not so much and we also invested a lot in the very beginning. I remember when we started with Edguy, Jens [Ludwig, guitar] and his parents bought a PA system for 40000 Deutsche Marks or so.

Tobbe: Good parents.

Tobias: Yeah. They were very supportive. But also we made a lot of sacrifice. I mean, I remember that all money I made from that civil service, like, I don't know, 600-700 Deutsche Marks a month, went straight into the phone bills. Back then phone calls were more expensive than what they are nowadays. We did a lot of international phone calls, because the band was operating kind of internationally and we were trying to get a record contract. We were all sending tapes around and calling people. We invested. I didn't become rich, but it felt almost like being rich when I signed that deal.

See also: review of the album Ghostlights

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