Mike Exley Speaks with Kai Hansen

Mike Exley catches up with Gamma Ray’s ebullient guitarist and singer, Kai Hansen on the eve of new album “Majestic”.

If you’re Kai Hansen, things look pretty good right now. Despite some personal problems in the last year we won’t go into here, his band Gamma Ray have completed another great step in their career in the form of the album “Majestic” (for the Sanctuary Records Group) and are just about to set out on yet another gruelling tour of Europe with ten new, driving and somewhat heavier songs in tow. But, a step back first.

Gamma Ray have been signed to the Sanctuary Group since 2003 when the band released the live compilation “Skeletons In The Closet”, a project helped by the immense response of their fan club to a request to suggest not only a set list but also a full track listing. They also supported Iron Maiden throughout Europe that year and had the full re-release treatment from the label when most of the back catalogue got a fresh lick of paint and extra tracks: That said, bar one new song which I witnessed on the Bang Your Head Festival bill in June of this year, the band has been off the radar for just a little too long though. Even Kai himself was heard to admit, from the stage at that very same festival, that some people may even have thought the ‘worst’. As is often the case, the truth is a little more complicated, and in reality, the road’s not been as rosey as the finished product, released this month, may suggest. Kai has been off producing and playing with the band Stormwarrior, drummer Dan Zimmermann still retains his slot in power metal heroes Freedom Call (billed to appear at ‘Prog Power’ UK next March) and the new record, good as it certainly is, has taken more time than maybe many thought it should have? So, have too many cooks spoiled the broth?

Kai is in philosophical mood but glad to be here in the UK on a press trip which has resulted in some very serious interest in what the band now has to offer. An interesting juxtaposition with Bang Your Head where the band obviously struggled?

“You know, that day was a real drag. And it started almost as soon as we walked on stage. We were really eager to play – it was our first show after all the work on the new record, we’d rehearsed really well, and Henjo (Richter)’s amp goes and blows up right after the first song? We had a new crew that day – everything took ages and we really felt like someone wanted us to go down in flames? I don’t know, the festival organisers were excellent and we managed to salvage a good show – when the fans were singing the chorus for the new song (‘Blood Religion’) which they didn’t even know, man, that was so cool - but it wasn’t an auspicious start. I came away from that with really mixed feelings.”

You mentioned on that show that some people actually thought that you had quit, even broken up as a band up to that point, specifically in Germany. What did you mean by that? Was it just a result of the on stage problems?

“At first preferring not to answer is cautious and laughs with a deep intake of breath. “Ah, yes, hmm. I mean it had been a long time since we’d played sure, but I think some people forget too that “Skeletons In The Closet” was almost like a studio album for us back in 2003. When you take on a project like that where you consult the fans and search through a whole tour worth of recorded material to get the best stuff; it’s hard work. But fans forget maybe, because they want new stuff all the time, not only the old stuff that makes up a live album. They want to see where you’re going – on the message board people were wondering where we’d got to, did we exist, etc… And, although I wasn’t pissed by that there were things outside our control that they couldn’t see. Our webmaster was badly injured in a motor accident so the website was not updated, stuff like that, and people started to speculate. Hopefully, that’s over now.”

Many of the members have projects they flirt with when Gamma Ray is not ‘working’ – you do Stormwarrior (in fact, Kai was going on to Bloodstock the day after our conversation to play with this bunch), Dan has Freedom Call. Does that detract from the main band in the eyes of the ‘fans’?

“Well, no. I think there’s a good balance really. Henjo and Dirk (Schlacter – bass) both had some really heavy personal stuff to deal with in the 2003-04 period and, of course, that took them away from the music. Dirk became a father again, too – There’s really no problem with Dan. When he does Freedom Call there’s always a great understanding there… I admit that Stormwarrior took a little time for me, but I guess these things have to take precedence occasionally – time just flies by, that’s all!”

Time is very important to this interview, because, of course, one of the criticisms that has haunted you this time, is that this record has taken such a long time to arrive. You acknowledge this on your website – www.gamma-ray.com?

 “True, but it’s a balancing act. Henjo needs time to come up with his ideas but there would be no point me sitting there trying to force the issue, you know what I mean? This is all about a creative thing. Dirk is pretty quick, I’m always writing stuff, playing with ideas on guitar at home, but we’re not ‘on holiday’ all the time, you know? I understand that people need the reassurance that we’re making music they can have access too, but we’re very selfish. There are those that can and do, come up with an album every year, but it’s not a necessity (for us). No one is interested in when an album ‘came’ out, just what it was really like. True, I don’t want to wait another four years for a studio album, for sure, but I don’t want to be forced to do something that isn’t right either. We’re not a ‘safe’ band in that way! The music we make is as much made to satisfy us as it is to satisfy even one fan! Passion is one of the keys to our success and we follow it on every recording!”

And, am I right in saying that this is the last album you’ll be recording at your own studio in Hamburg?

‘Yes, that’s right. The old building was sold. It was in an old war shelter – it was very comfortable, but we’ve moved on to another place and we have more space now. More views of the outside world…..”

OK, so where are you at in ‘the grand plan’ now?

 “Ha ! Ha ! The ‘Grand Plan’? I don’t think there is one really. We’re really happy with the album; I particularly like the direction of the songs and the next thing to do, is to tour that material because this album really lends itself to a big live set. Somewhere on the tour we’ll do a DVD – I don’t know why, but the ‘Skeletons….’set was only really ever intended for a live album and we’re still to do DVD; include ‘Land Of The Free’ stuff like that, the real classics – but we’ll see because some of the tour still has to be planned. We’ll do this tour, then do some Summer festivals next year, and plan for the DVD. I’d like to do it in Japan maybe…….. Then, of course, another album, ha!”

Yes, but you’re now under the wings of a much bigger operation; Sanctuary rather than Noise International where the band spent all of their career since debuting with ‘Heading For Tomorrow’ in 1989. How much input will you have and will you be able to talk to the ‘engine driver’ in the same way as you did with Noise?

‘Well, we have to see, of course. I don’t just want to go to Japan for the DVD because the fans are great there – the organisation is also very good – we can work without a support act which means that, for DVD, you can set up stage and sound perfectly – I remember this from the ‘Heading For The East’ Video particularly, but we have to see. The balance between ‘We Want v We Get.”

“The route from us to the finalisation of a project is certainly longer than it was in the former years, that’s for sure. But, so far the label have been great and the organisation has been spot on. Sure, the decision process is long. I’m not sure who to talk to – I go to Germany and obviously, sometimes I have to wait for my answer but that’s part of working with a big organisation like Sanctuary and I cannot knock it. We were originally on Noise, then Metal-Is, now Mayan – but don’t ask me about that. Just that the fans can get the record; that’s all that interests me! One thing I do like about Sanctuary though, is that they specifically avoid all the “rip your pocket off” releases some labels do. We had our albums re-issued as you know (with extra tracks) but just the once. (Kai - Adopting very formal business voice) “We need the extra packaging with the toilet paper and the toothpaste”? No, you don’t.”

Beautifully worked through, Kai old son! Your tour schedule this time actually mentioned the UK, although no dates are yet confirmed?

‘Yes, absolutely. I think that the UK is definitely opening up. When we played Bloodstock the last time I was really impressed by the organisation and the friendliness of the fans. Dragonforce seem to be making a lot of waves for ‘power metal’ here, and many German bands tell us that the crowds here are developing, so let’s do it.”

Let’s crack on into ‘Majestic’ now. It appears to me to be a heavier, angrier album?

“Yes, certainly more aggressive. It’s pretty complex, it mixes up a lot of the variety Gamma Ray has in our ‘power metal’ spectrum, if you will? There’s anger, the wish to deny age, musical age, particularly. Some bands, when they’ve been together for a long time, get, kind of, lost in the art and Gamma Ray really isn’t like this because we try to focus on the hunger by maintaining the anger. Music is a kind of mirror on the world for us and although every member of Gamma Ray has his own opinions, we’re all of one mind when it comes to expressing anger through music. Take ‘Hell Is Thy Home’ – track 4. This is definitely one for the Mr Bush’s of the world…….. You can include Adolf Hitler, Stalin as well, people who make the world a horrible place. I mean, do you really think that those people try to make the world a better place? No. They deserve hell really!”

For Henjo, there’s the track ‘Fight’ – track 2. He had a very personal low period of his life right before the record and the chorus – the very strong repetition of the words, ‘Carry On’ is very important. He did, originally, want to call it that actually, but the original title was ‘Fight’ and he agreed to stick to that because it’s more in line with the overall feel – more aggressive! ‘Carry On’ implied you kind of agreed with what was happening……..?”

And “Condemned To Hell”? The bending of the guitar chord is very strong there!

“That was written by Dan actually and it’s really unusual for us because Dan writes on keyboard and not guitar. Because he’s demoing on keyboard he uses the keyboard representation of a guitar sound which is kind of different, it’s very harsh like Rammstein and it makes for very open, strange songs. The lyric to that is very strong too….. “Am I condemned to live in this fucking horrible world as it is now? Of course, I have to accept it, but why should I”, you know what I mean?”

And ‘Blood Religion’ – there are many great tracks……?

 “I think people will find that many tracks meet different expectations, you know? ‘Majesty’, Blood Religion’, ‘My Temple’ – they’re all very different but they all carry the purpose we tried to put into the overall scheme of the thing. No one track can sum up the album – ‘Fight’ and ‘Blood Religion’ might be good tracks to do for a video because they represent Gamma Ray – but then again, I’m finding it really hard to know quite how to argue for anyone track in particular, because they all say something about how Gamma Ray is and how we all think. I don’t know who’s going to make that choice actually.”

When we see you, eventually, will you be featuring all of this album?

“I think that depends on the territory. We’re going to parts of Europe first, I think.. Then South America and Japan, the more exotic; Taiwan, Hong Kong, Indonesia and Korea, some places we haven’t been, but we’ll plan the set for Europe and see where it leads. I’ve been advocating doing the whole of the new album, plus extras, the greatest hits but that would make the set kind of long so we have to see. I think every new song is strong enough to be in there, for sure; but you have to think about the fans that want to hear the old classics too, so we might have well over an hour and a half this time? Once it’s set and it works, we don’t change it that much, actually.”

The cover suggests at a cracking back drop and a good production. Not quite the flying pyramids of ‘Powerplant’ but quite a striking image?

“Sure. The guy who did the artwork is more like the old Derek Riggs stuff we had in the old days and it really lends itself to a stage production. It’s simple in a way but very striking.”

One of your reasons for setting up Gamma Ray was of course the incessant touring you had to do with Helloween. Being with Sanctuary now, do you feel the pressure to tour could once again threaten the strength of the band at home and on the road?

“Well, touring is hard, of course, but I think we are more adjusted to it now than we were back then. The way we do it now takes into account a lot of the dangers of extensive touring – I have experienced them of course – and you never know how many years this might go on so you don’t want to miss anything but family is very important now and you have to make provision for both. I don’t want restrictions, but you have to be reasonable, ok!”

“We have an advantage – this line up has been together for over ten years now and we’re like an old couple. We respect each other, we fight of course, but the little ticks are less important than they used to be. I would feel very uncomfortable if we tried to change the way we are now – why should we. We make great music – ‘Majestic’ is certainly a product of this – so, hopefully everyone can accept how it is and enjoy the fruits of it not only in the band but also around it. We have one more album for Sanctuary, Henjo has already written four songs, so although we don’t plan too far ahead we know there’s still a lot more to come.”

And Kai is certainly right. His home country isn’t led by trends but they’re sure to embrace this… and we all know what happens when the people over there get talking about the underground and spreading the word. America gets the bug and then the UK follows…. Expect to hear much more of Gamma Ray in the very near future then. ‘Majestic’ is out September 23rd.

For band link please visit my link's page.

Thank's to (Metal) Mike Exley for interviewing Kai for me and also to Gary @ Tora for his help!!

Click on logo to return to main interview section.