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Interview conducted December 02 2014
Interview published December 18 2014

Vocalist Hansi Kürsch and guitarist André Olbrich of Blind Guardian made a quick stop in Stockholm, Sweden, to promote their new album, Beyond The Red Mirror [Street date: January 30th 2015 via Nuclear Blast.]. The guys had already been traveling for a few days through Europe with up to 15 interviews taking place each day, but still they were pretty alert and open to what I wanted to know.

Tobbe: 4 years has been pretty much the standard between Blind Guardian albums ever since 1998 and now it's been 4.5 years since the At The Edge Of Time release, so what have you been up to during all this time? I know it's a lot to tell, since it's 4.5 years, but…

Hansi: There would be a lot to talk about, but basically it's just easy to deliver the chapters. 2 years were reserved for touring, because we belong to the musicians and bands who can't compose on tour. When we got back, we decided to release our first best of-album [Memories Of A Time To Come] and that kept us fairly busy, because we decided to re-record a few songs and we were involved in the mixing and all that stuff. This took another 6 months and right after we were asked to do the compilation A Traveler's Guide To Space And Time and this kept us busy for yet another 6 months, because it's always also related to promotional activities, which you have to do. At that point we started songwriting and as you know, we try to come up with something new on each album and to get to that point takes a while obviously. There's a lot of information in each and every of these songs, so it took us 2 and a half years to accomplish the songs and producing them at the same time. Basically we would be ready to release the album now, but we have to accept that the record company needs a little room as well. [Hansi obviously lost track of time, since all this together adds up to 5.5 years, but I think we get the point anyway.]

Tobbe: So what can people generally expect from the new album?

Hansi: Blind Guardian pure, I would say. Which also means that there is sort of a surprise box involved, you know. Some elements which will surprise people, to say it kindly. Elements which may shock in the first moment, like elements in Ninth Wave, which are more, how should I say, modern, disturbing somehow, futuristic. Apart from that, it's typical classical progression which we have designed during the last 10-15 years.

Tobbe: You come out slightly more progressive for almost each album nowadays. Is this something you talk about, in terms of songwriting, when you start to write for an album? You know, getting more progressive, or does songwriting just come natural?

André: No, we don't think about it. When I start, I keep everything open. The only goal I have is to find new ideas. That's how to start. Without a good new idea, you can not create something that differs from the last album and I always want to start with something that sounds different from the last things we did. But that's the only rule we have. (Hansi:) I agree. Whenever we create plans, and I have had plans, they will be proven wrong quickly, because you have to live with that essential first idea. If it is a good idea, you know. This defines the direction for, at least, the next song. Then you have to start up new with the next one and it teaches you the lesson, you know. You have to be grateful for good ideas and you have to create the best thing possible.

Tobbe: So what do you guys do to try to minimize repeats? One way or the other, one riff might come back when you're playing the guitar.

André: I think I have a pretty good overview of what we have done. I recognize very fast if something sounds familiar. If I start recording something, sometimes you oversee something, but then I get the feedback from Hansi and he will say that we probably have used it here or there, and then we skip it. When we find something too similar to something old, we skip it immediately, because then it doesn't make sense at all.

Tobbe: And what do you do with the vocal melodies?

Hansi: For me it's easier, because I just have to follow up at that point. As he said, if it appears too familiar to me, I will tell him and we will skip it immediately. I also think that you probably have a quarter or two, which are familiar, you know, in the way you combine them. But if you have a structure of 16 bars or 32 bars, there should be a significant change already, and this is supplied by him. When things come to me, they have a different handwriting. At least I feel so. I have no idea where his mind is, so I receive it completely different than he probably has intended to deliver it. I deal with it from a fresh point of view and therefore it's natural for me that, at least, the main idea I come up with is something new. Of course I also can not avoid similarities. I mean, there's 10 records and there is sort of harmonic limits, because you need to deliver music which is metal orientated, which is orientated to the European understanding of course and we rely on that. But apart from that, there are so many surprises. We have so many key changes and rhythm changes, which people sometimes are not aware of. This makes it so special and it almost makes it easy for me to come up with something new, because I have to react on things which are kind of different always.

Tobbe: You said more or less 2.5 years for writing and recording this album. Do you put a lot of pressure on yourselves nowadays, to improve with every release?

Hansi: It differs a little bit, you know, and it also differs between the albums. I personally haven't felt any pressure this time. I just enjoyed what we were doing, I was questioning things in between songs, but in general, when we started songwriting, it felt very comfortable for me, but this might be completely different for André. (André:) Yeah, for me there's always some kind of pressure to find these special ideas, because I always like the last album very much and I think of how to do something which will be as good. You are on zero, you have nothing and the first songs are the most difficult ones. Later, if you have 2 or 3 done, it gets easier for me. It takes some time to get into working flow again and after a few songs, you can go deeper into yourself, dig deeper, bring out better sources. After a while, you are so relaxed, that you really get good ideas. This time, I like the last songs we wrote the best, probably because I was already so happy with what we had achieved up to that point, that I could be completely free and open to more.

Tobbe: Are you guys hard on each other when writing? Really tough?

Hansi: Yeah. We have to, because we are the only reliable sources. Maybe Charlie Bauerfeind is sort of a reliable source at points. But even him, you have to keep outside sometimes, because he is a detecting, observing producer, you know, and you don't want to have that too early, because it spoils your images sometimes. Even if something might not be designed properly well in the beginning, it seems to be properly well for André and for me in the end. We usually have a very good understanding of what the other guy has in mind, even though it's probably not perfectly outlined at that point. But on the other hand, it means that if I rely on him and deliver my stuff, he needs to be hard on me and the other way around. I should have the privilege to say "You have done that before. I don't like this combination. This is impossible for me to sing. Blah blah blah, or whatever.". There are many, many occasions and we usually accept the other one's opinion. But of course, if you feel that you're right and he's not giving justice to the right elements and he doesn't understand, then you need to be strict and you need to stand for it. You have to fight for your ideas, for your vision. Then it's up to the other one to find a way to describe his personal view on the whole thing. and then you have to figure out who's right.

Tobbe: You're working with Charlie again and he's been involved with a lot of your records.

André: We started working together with Nightfall [Nightfall In Middle-Earth. Released in 1998.], but he didn't produce it. He was only an engineer on Nightfall and there we saw that we get along well and he has a good understanding for our ideas. Then we started our own studio and we worked with Charlie, as a producer, for the first time on the Opera [A Night At The Opera. Released in 2002.]. I think we have since then built up, not only a great friendship, but we are a really good team. He's really into the idea of Blind Guardian. (Hansi:) He understands, at a very early point.

Tobbe: Yeah. There's gotta be something special, because you've been working together for so long.

André: And he's a really creative person as well. He's not trying to put a sound schematic on us. He's looking at what is in the band, at our characters and what we want to say with the songs and then try to feature the main elements and supports what we did already. And that's the great thing, because then it sounds authentic and original. (Hansi:) But in comparison to the way we rely on each other and how we interact, I'm sometimes still surprised how many misunderstandings there are from Charlie's side. The way he receives Blind Guardian as an outside person still. You have to consider that sometimes of course, but it's very interesting, because at other points, I think he's so close to us, so there shouldn't be any discussion anymore.

Tobbe: It's probably a good thing though, that he's not on your side all the time.

Hansi: Yes, but it's also a good thing just to realize how close we are in terms of ideology and vision for Blind Guardian, and how we almost have the same view on aspects.

Tobbe: I was listening to the album and I heard some choirs and orchestral stuff. Why did you decide to bring those elements in even stronger?

Hansi: We both liked Sacred Worlds and Wheel Of Time. We feel it's two of the strongest points on At The Edge Of Time. This was one reason and the other reason was more a natural approach. When we started songwriting, some of the songs seemed to demand it. Once a song has a certain structure which delivers that image or is designed that way from the beginning, then why not go in that direction again? (André:) And for me, it was fun to play around with those classical elements again. I don't know, maybe this time I liked to play the guitar in this kind of style as well. Once you play around with things and you have ideas, why not use them? And I really like what we achieved with Wheel Of Time and then it's a challenge for you to try to do something even better and it would be a shame if you don't continue one of the lines of a certain style. I always like to follow all the elements that we did with Blind Guardian at a certain time, like, we started some more technical and harder things with a more modern approach on A Twist In The Myth [Released in 2006.] and we grabbed those things as well and did something like Ninth Wave this time.

Tobbe: So you kind of take things from the latest albums, the good things, and develop them?

André: Yeah, you take some things and try to develop them in a better direction. You know what mistakes you did in the past, or you have just learned by playing the songs live, or probably you just have a new vision because it's a different time. You try to improve and we did now with the orchestral things and I think we did a good job, because Grand Parade is to me the song where we have the best combination of orchestra and Blind Guardian. I think we played so well with dynamics. It's really unbelievable.

Tobbe: If you could point out one thing that is really a unique asset on this album, what would it be? Like a point that you like very much or something that is very unique, even for Blind Guardian.

André: Ninth Wave. (Hansi:) I would agree on Ninth Wave, but to have another song, which is a roller coaster ride throughout our whole career I think, it would be Sacred Mind. It's sort of a very intense song. It has elements of all chapters of Blind Guardian and it was produced in a way which just struck me. This is probably the most intense moment for me on the album.

Tobbe: Why did you decide to call the album Beyond The Red Mirror?

Hansi: It's based on the concept mainly and there is a story related to Imaginations From The Other Side [Released in 1995.]. You can see the whole thing as a personal quest for a sort of individual holy grail, but as a story, it has to be related to the two worlds described on Imaginations From The Other Side. A mirror plays a very important role on this album. It's the natural port [gate] between two worlds, you know, to do the transition. The protagonist of Beyond The Red Mirror, the boy from And The Story Ends, is basically on his quest for the grail and the red mirror to get over to the other side and finally fulfill his destiny.

Tobbe: With all the technology surrounding recordings nowadays, do you sometimes think that you, like, overuse what's available?

Hansi: No, no. Not in terms of orchestra, not in terms of orchestration within the band, or the way we do the vocals. I personally think it's a stylish matter between the different periods in Blind Guardian, which became more and more important. It's basically related to the songwriting itself. If you have a song and you have a certain element in the song and you feel it demands this particular approach, then why not do it?

(André:) I think that the technique is just a tool and you can always abuse tools, but you also have a chance to find a way for yourselves to use them to prove your ideas and visions. I think we have found a really good way to produce in a digital way. For example, there's many bands that only record some parts and then they copy/paste everything, and we don't do this, because we have our own philosophy about music. We want to have the performance as human and as live as possible, so we play everything. There no reason for me to not play rhythm guitar 'til the end of the song and to skip parts, just because I can copy them, okay. If you have the right philosophy about things, I think this technique that we have today can really help. If you think back and go to the 60's and you see The Beatles and you tell them "Okay, we have a 8 analog system here or you can work with Pro Tools. What would you like to do?". For sure, they would choose Pro Tools as well and make the best out of their music. So why would a musician limit himself technical wise? That doesn't make sense. You go for everything you can have, but you should not sacrifice your music and vision in any way. You should go for what you want to say with your music.

Tobbe: Does Blind Guardian really has anything to prove still? Like in terms of making great music. You know, you've done 9 records already and you're a pretty popular band.

Hansi: I think so. It's like a boxer going back to the ring. It's a natural need to do so. When it comes to being creative, you cannot abolish it or just give it up, just because you grow up, you know. If you consider yourself an artist, which we do, then you need to go on this way. It's the same with performing live. I can't say that I'm reaching 50, 55, 60, whatever, and now I'm not supposed to be on stage anymore? Therefore I can understand Mick Jagger and whoever who's touring forever. You need to change a little bit and pay tribute to your experience and your age, but you need to go on and you have the privilege to do so. It's the same with creating songs. I still have the feeling that we can deliver something new with each album and as long as that is the case, we will keep on composing.

Tobbe: So where do you see Blind Guardian in like 10 or 15 years?

Hansi: At the top. [Laughs] (André:) Stadium tour.

Tobbe: Yeah, right.

Hansi: I guess it will pretty much be the same. We are having decent success and we are enjoying what we are doing. The future lies wide open, I have to say. We can become more successful or we can become a little less successful, but we will still be around.

Tobbe: You released albums way long before the internet boom, so how have you, as a band, tried to adapt to this new age?

Hansi: You have to somehow grow into it. You have to live with it. The adaptation is obviously a part of it, but I did not feel it as drastic as it is described sometimes. Of course, people have changed their behaviors in listening to stuff and in approaching stuff. But for us, we have to rely on the people we work with. We can only create music. That's our main goal and once we have accomplished this, we need to go with the flow and we need to go with the strategy and the philosophy of the record company. Of course, we have our own ideas and we try to bring them in. It is important to keep digital music in mind whatever you're doing, but it hasn't changed any points of our view in terms of creativity and it has not hurt our success so severely that I can curse it or have a bad feeling about it. It's just different and yes, you have to get along with it. I can't deny Spotify. It's there.

(André:) Yeah, you probably don't sell as many records that you could have done without the internet, but on the other side, if you do good quality music, which we try to do, your music is being spread automatically. I think we grew because of this and the problem with people who wanted to copy things was always there. I mean, there was radio before, and when there was vinyl albums, the biggest fear of the record companies was the radio shows that everybody was listening to and recorded it on tape. And then it was the tape traders. I mean, it was always there. But besides this, and especially in metal and rock music, there's real fans who are supporting the bands and they buy the albums. I support my favorite bands. I go to the stores and when I like an album, I buy it. Many of my friends do it this way. They probably check it out on the internet, but if they like something, they go for the full album. And then I think it's fair and I wouldn't complain about it. (Hansi:) Confusing is the acceptance of young people to live with minor quality, sound wise. [Was that Yoda speaking?] You have a company like Apple, with iTunes, which demands the biggest mastered files ever and then they compress it like hell and sell it. It is weird, but on the other hand, if that's the way people listen to music, then it's all right. But of course, I would go for the most decent sound.

Tobbe: You're gonna be back at the 70000 Tons Of Metal cruise. I was there when you played there the last time and I remember you [Hansi] when you were jogging on the running track.

Hansi: You remember that? [Laughs]

Tobbe: Yeah, because I saw you when I was sitting inside having a beer and I saw you passing my window all the time. So what makes you eventually go back to that cruise?

Hansi: Doing my rounds again. [Laughs even harder.] (André:) It was so much fun. It was awesome. (Hansi:) We loved it. I agree. (André:) It was one of the best events. I liked it very much. It had a great spirit. People were so nice, everybody, the fans, the bands. (Hansi:) It was amazing. I really loved it. I hope it will be as good as the last time, because I have spoken to some people and they say that the first one was the most intense. I still have very good feelings and we have a great team. It's just amazing, to be on the boat and to have a glass of wine or a bottle of beer, or whatever, and to listen to noisy music and to talk bullshit.

See also: review of the album Beyond The Red Mirror

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