Many bands have unique eras often defined by different lead vocalists or other musicians. Hard rockers Helloween have gone through several changes over its 35 year career, but none as massive as the current lineup. For its current “Pumpkins United” roster, the band is celebrating its entire career with all of its vocalists together at the same time, resulting in a Helloween supergroup.
The massive seven-person lineup has released its new self-titled album featuring a united vision and an equal sharing of vocal parts.
We had to chat with long-time member Sascha Gerstner to get the lowdown.
This is a cool time to be in Helloween? I mean, Pumpkins United… Come on. Tell me about the new album.
I think we finished it last year and then the pandemic hit, so we had quite some time to do the music video for “Skyfall”.
We postponed some touring like all the other bands. The album, man, I gotta tell you, I’m pretty excited. I don’t know yet how the fans will react, but from what I can just tell by what the press response was, it’s pretty amazing. As an artist, if you are in the creating process, you never know if that’s good or bad – when you finish with your work, you never know. Is that good work or not? You just do what you like, and then others have to decide.
How did this whole Pumpkins United thing come about?
Well, it came up naturally. We went on tour with Kai together a couple of times – we did the Hellish Rock 1 tour and Hellish Rock 2 tours – then we had talks, and got along very well. So at one point, we’ve been talking about this. Then of course, we felt like it would make sense if Michael Kiske would be back in the band too, but we didn’t know if that was going to happen.
At one point, we just met and brought up this meeting where everybody would just go with their guts and then well,…everybody agreed.
During the tour, at one point, we just said, Hey, listen, can we talk to management at some airport? We just said, Can we just drop this Pumpkins United term, because now this is Helloween, it’s the seven of us. And it’s just a band, then we figured at one point that with this lineup, we can create an album as well. Here we are a couple years later. Yeah, it feels good and it feels real.
You sort of answered my next question a little bit. Why did you self-title this album, instead of calling it Pumpkins United?
We had the track “Pumpkins United” already. And then also, we had a working title for that album. But for some reason, there was nothing that came up very fitting. When the album was finished, at one point, we just had the feeling that it feels so complete. And it also it feels like that it’s handling all the eras of the band.
So you have a lot of old school 80s vibe in there, but at the same time, it has a modern approach.
So it’s kind of like a crossover through all the eras. Also, it feels like a best of album somehow, but with songs, nobody knows. Since it feels complete, we just thought this is the ultimate Helloween album. Also, it’s going full circle, from the beginning from the mini EP starting to this album, and then going through all the eras, having all the singers, three guitar players and everything. I’m also thinking that this is full circle of the whole history of the band, but at the same time, it’s the beginning of a new era.
Is there new life in the band now that it’s sort of this super group of history?
That’s how it could feel, yes. We had the feeling when we’ve been on tour together.
The touring already felt a bit that way because it just went so great. We didn’t expect it, we knew that there would be a lot of focus on the tour and on the band with Kai and Michael coming back, but also it was very well balanced.
Andi and Michael, for instance, they’re like on the same level. They’re such different singers, but from what you can tell from the live performances, they’re on the same level – it’s just a different type of singing. The same goes with the guitar playing – the three of us, it was a very good combination, so you could be right. It feels like this is a Helloween supergroup. But who am I to say that?
Usually after 30 years or so, bands run out of things to say, but with all the new members in the band now, different vocalist, and different guitarist, there must be lots to say.
Yeah, there’s a lot of flavours and it comes across on the album as well, because everybody was playing, and giving ideas.
You have a lot of songwriters with the different voices and different types of playing at the same time. It gives you lots of variety that a lot of other bands don’t have, by nature, because normally you would have one singer, one or two guitar players, and then most of the times with most bands, you have one or two guys being the leader and writing songs.
In Helloween, you have so many strong characters, you have a lot of bandleaders being in one band. For some reason its crazy, but it works. Normally if you give anyone a cocktail like this, they would say, no please, I just go with something simpler, but in our case, it just works and it’s a big family.
Also, our manager has been there since 2004 continuously and Charlie Bauerfeind has produced every Helloween record that I was playing on and he knows the band very well.
So we have a lot of people taking part on this album and that makes it work. There’s always someone who’s keeping the band on track. There’s always someone who’s calming things down when they say they were up. But, you know, it works. It’s great.
I’m a long time KISS fan. I’ve always liked the band. This version of Helloween is kind of the version that I would love to see with KISS with some of the guys getting back together and everything. But, with KISS they’re at the end. Do you think that this might be the start of the end for you guys or is there lots of life left?
Oh man. I’m just hoping. It feels very fresh to me though. I’m sometimes amazed with it all. I’m the youngest guy in the band, so from here, there’s no end at all in my eyes, unless I’m not waking up one morning.
It feels like a new era at the same time, like the tour was one part of it. And then this album, which we’re very happy about right now, is another part of it. That’s why it’s called Helloween. It’s to give a signal out there for our fans to say, this is not it. This is the beginning of something new. And it’s also summing up what the band has done for more than 30 years.
I think if there’s no pandemic, if everything is going well, we can continue touring and releasing music.
There must be some interesting musical dynamics at play now, because each vocalist, each guitarist can give the band a different direction, if it wants to go in a different direction.
Absolutely. There’s a lot of talent in the band right now and I personally like it a lot. When I joined the band in the beginning of the 2000s, I was pretty impressed by the back catalog because Michael gave me all the albums. I was amazed because of course, you would know the classics, but then there were so many different albums and the variety the band already had was very good. I was very impressed by that.
Later on, we continuously recorded albums. We always had rock songs. We had ballads. We had fast pacing speed metal songs. Then we had some classical influence, power metal songs. So there’s a lot of variety already.
We could go from one point, let’s say we could go from Focus to totally Scorpions – having these kinds of influences in us.
Andi’s a big fan of KISS, and you can hear it there in his songwriting too. But at the same time, it’s so unique that we combined all our roots into our writing and giving ourselves the chance to have a lot of variety.
For us, there’s just one rule: a good song is a good song. We don’t like to stick to one term. Yes, of course you have this direction that people are expecting you to be – a heavy metal band – and I’m not a big fan of all these other sub genres. For me, when I grew up and when I started playing guitar, there was only heavy metal. And of course, I knew the end of the 80s, early 90s, there was a big movement of thrash bands coming up and stuff like that. So it started this sub genre thing.
For me, it’s almost like heavy metal, whether it’s Scorpions or Helloween or, you know, for me, it was all kinds of different bands and different types of songwriting. But at the same time, it was just heavy metal. And that’s what we want to do.
In this big arena of heavy metal, everything’s possible – from a rock song to a speed metal song. With Helloween from the beginning, whatever you come up with, there’s always someone in the band who likes it.
And it’s OK. We should do a song with this, we should do something with that. I’ve got to say, I have a big influence of old new wave, “New Romantics” thing. Before I even started playing guitar, I was a big fan of Peter Gabriel and Phil Collins and a lot of pop music too. And, believe it or not, that’s not so far away from a Helloween song.
Some fans would go “Wow is he crazy saying this”, but in the end, it’s just a good song and when you’re writing a good song, the rest is just sound and energy.
What differs from a good heavy metal song or from a good pop song is not the songwriting, it’s more or less the sound and the energy. And that’s what I like about heavy metal – you have a lot of loud sounds and a lot of fast paced drumming and this heavy metal, soaring guitars. That’s the difference, but the songwriting is basically the same.
It’s funny you mentioned some of those influences because I was going to mention that in some of the songs that you wrote for this album, you can hear some of those influences just slightly popping in here and there throughout the metal crunch.
Yeah, it’s about melodies and where you come from. If you’re an artist, it’s not that you fell from the sky, you’re influenced. You can clearly hear that Kai, for instance, is influenced very much by Judas Priest. You can always hear that and you can hear that Weikath is a lover of 60s and 70s music. You can hear it clearly in his melodies.
Everybody has his influences and I love pop music – and not like the cheesy radio stuff people are used to.
I would sit in the back seat of my mother’s car listening to the radio and I loved when Phil Collins came out with “In the Air Tonight”. I was listening to that song every morning when she was driving me to kindergarten. That’s my influence. That’s the first musical influence I had when I was consciously listening to music and you can’t deny that when you hear my songs.
I also record vocals and I don’t have a heavy metal voice, so we would need each other to play our demos -everybody would sing on his demos and for some songs it’s funny. For others, it’s just depending on the voice. Markus would go full blast on a low level, low tuned voice. He would sing the way he speaks, which is sometimes kind of funny, but you get the melody. I would do the same things. I sing the songs with my type of singing, which is more into a pop rock voice, and then all the other members have to imagine how that would sound if Michael or Andi are singing that.
For instance, when you take “Best Time” from this record, I was singing on that song and the demo version. I you would listen to that, it sounds so like Billy Idol 80s songs, but then when Andi and Michael sing on that, it’s a Helloween song. That’s what I was saying about the packaging. If the singer of the band sings the song, it’s the band’s song. If you have Paul Stanley sing on any of these Helloween songs, you would instantly think, Oh, that’s KISS with some crazy Helloween influence or something like that.
I think you have one of the bonus cuts on the album, too “Golden Times”, tell me about that one.
Whether it was a like a typical happy Helloween song, I never even thought that we would record that, every time when you’re doing demos, we always would write a lot of songs. But of course, not all of the songs would end up on an album.
Sometimes there are songs you think I’ll just throw them on the table, but I don’t think they will like it. But for some reason, most members in the band liked it.
So we recorded it and I didn’t even think that we would record it, but we did. It’s a great example of a typical Helloween song. So basically if you strip it down, it’s a pop song which is styled in a heavy metal or a power metal style.
You’re guilty of being a pop music fan…that’s all there is to it.
(Laughter) Well, you know, there’s no guilt here. The only guilt would be if I would go into saying basically I hate metal, but I love hip hop and rap, but then maybe it could feel guilty, but no, then that’s not the thing. I just think there’s good songwriting and there’s boring songwriting.
When you grew up in the 80s, we were on the peak of producing songs and writing songs differently. If you look back, I’m a lover of vinyl. I’m collecting vinyl a little bit here and there, and whenever I listen to music from back then – and it doesn’t even have to be heavy metal – I’m amazed about the dynamics and the ideas that came into production and to make those songs so perfect.
The funny thing is that we kind of made the same thing with this album, because we went back to 1980s recording techniques. We spent more time than usual for the recording and the pre-production. We recorded drums to tape. We would record guitars in a very old school manner. We would use old 80s gear because we just think it sounds the best.
It’s kind of funny that we all stick to that era. We all like that.
I know a lot of fans do too; a lot of fans say they love 80s music, so we kind of adapted that for the recording as well.
I personally, love that we’ve been able to do that because I was always collecting 80s synthesizers and guitar gear and multi effects, and this time I could just use it – it was so good.
Even the riff in “Best Time” was first recorded on a synthesizer from 1986. I had this melody for the riff and I was playing it on synth and singing to it. Later I translated that to the guitar, so that’s how all this stuff came up.
Then when we went into the production, Charlie was like, hey, if you like to bring all your 80s gear, let’s bring it to the studio. I even brought my old Eventide H3000, which for non-studio people, is a very classic 80s multi effect which sounds magical. And then there’s a Lexicon reverb and other vintage stuff. You could listen on any record from the 80s, and it has magic. It just does. Listening back to drums that have been recorded on tape.
On this new Helloween record, you can clearly here that it’s so different from a lot of other new releases you’re listening to right now. We just have been lucky to work that way. But I know how it is nowadays, you make a lot of your income as a musician when you go on tour, and in between, you have to record albums.
Most of the time, you’re not getting a lot of money for recording albums, so most bands would spend maybe two to three months to get the album done. So there’s no time to make experiments; there’s no time to do what we just did – this time we had a chance.
It’s just more fun and you can hear the magic. It’s hard to describe, but that’s what we wanted. We wanted to have this 80s old school retro vibe, but at the same time, we didn’t want to have the album sound retro.
We wanted to have it sound modern, but with the same vibe and magic. I think now, after months later, when we’re able to listen to the record in the whole, I just think it was worth it. It’s so different to anything else from that genre.
I bet it sounds totally different on vinyl.
I hope so. It always sounds different when you put albums on vinyl, but I’m thinking this time it should be very authentic because a lot of these old school recording techniques happened as well, and we combine that old school, with new school techniques. So, yeah, it should sound great on vinyl.
Kai and Michael kind of predate your history with the band. Tell me how you got to know them.
Kia, I haven’t known for a long time, but I’ve met him, I think, when I was already 19 years old for the first time. My old band used to rehearse at his studio in Hamburg, so I met him here and there a couple of times. Then later on, of course, when I toured Helloween, I would meet him and then we did the Hellish Rock tours. We’ve been on tour together for a long time. Everything just sort of happened naturally that way.
With Michael, I have to say, the first time I really met him, I saw him with Avantasia at some festival, but that was just briefly. Then another time was when we had the meeting for the Pumpkins United Tour, when we agreed to meet and see if we like each other. We ended up sitting next to each other, like you would come into the room and he would just be sitting next to me, and for hours we had great conversation, the both of us. It’s a big friendship that grew from that moment on because there’s some weird connection we have. He told me everything about Elvis that evening.
And I was just thinking what an interesting guy, and he’s totally a Helloween member. You know, we’re all freaks. We’re not the typical cliché heavy metal guys. We are really freaks. We were so interested in a lot of different music and a lot of different things that are happening in the world, so we always have great conversations, but especially him and I. We had this spiritual connection in a way, and to this day, we always keep in touch. I would say him and Weikath are not so different from each other, which is weird because they got into a lot of fights back then, when they had problems. But they’re not so different from each other on one hand, but then, obviously, at the same time they are.
But with both of them, I have a great connection. Even if there’s nothing happening with the band, we always talk. We always have something to share. So for me, both Kai and Michael are great additions, and it was just like during the tour, there’s always time you have to adapt to a new situation. But I have to say during the tour, I just felt, OK, this is just a bigger family now.
What’s it like having seven guys on stage?
Well, we’ve been lucky to play big stages. I remember in the beginning, we had this catwalk and sometimes we would fall over each other’s feet, We were not used to that.
We also like the unexpected, so we never rehearse the movements, it just comes naturally. So, of course, in the beginning it was very, very chaotic. But at the same time, that’s what Helloween is about.
If you’ve ever gone to a Helloween show, you can clearly see there’s a lot of fun in the air and a lot of crazy movements and a lot of unexpected stuff happening, and I kind of like that.
We get used to that, even Kai who’s very focused on himself and his surroundings, when he goes on stage, it’s like someone pushed the button and then he’s just running and jumping and doing his thing.
So it was kind of funny in the beginning, but at the same time, there’s so much energy on stage. I just love it and I miss it.
How about the additional guitar? That changes things altogether, doesn’t it?
Absolutely. Normally when you record songs in a studio, you have a lot of guitars there. And when we started out with the Pumpkins United set up, with a setlist and everything, we figured that actually it’s quite nice because with three guitars, you can do stuff that you can’t do with two guitars.
I also like the idea that Kai had from the beginning – it was like, hey, I don’t want to sit backstage and wait for my moment. He was like, if you do this, I just want to learn all the songs, even the songs I weren’t there for me. I found it very clever.
I think that is one of the reasons why we’ve been able to do this album the way we did it, because there was a lot of respect for the after “Keeper” era and also respect for everything that happened in between.
Being on stage together, playing all the songs, made us become a real band in this formation.
I want to end the interview talking about the epic track “Skyfall”. What’s your take on the song?
Well, there’s this thing Charlie came up with, which I really like. From the beginning, before we started the recording process, he told me, listen, what I want to have is the energy of every musician on every track, like when I saw you live.
He saw us at a Festival in 2018 and he was blown away. He told me, there’s this magic on stage with you guys, with all the singers and all the guitar players. This magic and vibe – I want to recreate for the album. The only way that’s going to happen that way is when you are all playing all the songs.
So what we would do is whether you have written the song or not, you would start recording the song like you were the sole guitar player. So that’s what we did.
Him and I recorded the first five tracks and he told me, no matter what, don’t leave space for anyone else, just record everything you like, every idea you have.
So we basically finished the songs and then he sent over the first five tracks to the other studio where Kia was working and he told him to do basically the same thing.
While Kia was recording on these five tracks, I was recording the next five tracks and so on.
And then in the end, when we had all recordings finished, he took it to Teneriffe, where he would record with Weikath, doing the same thing.
In the end, Charlie would decide what kind of recordings are matching and creating the vibe that the band has live. I found it very brilliant because I wouldn’t ever come up with this idea.
I really liked it very much because there was also combining all of us on every track. So you could clearly hear on every track on the album all of our energies, which makes it kind of special.
It’s not very boring that way, you could clearly hear who’s playing what.
Check out Helloween.org for more music, merch and upcoming tour dates.