Under The Horizon ... Stephan Lill Speaks Out.
German Progressive Metal band 'Vanden Plas' have been around since 1991 create some of the finest work in many years. Both brothers Stephan Lill (guitars) and Andreas Lill (drums) met up with vocalist Andy Kuntz, bassist Torsten Reichhert and keyboardist Gunter Werno to create some outstanding music in a long time.
The band released their stunning debut 'Colour Temple' in 1994 which was one of a hell of a outstanding album that had a big production and great songs. This was followed by The God Thing' in 97 and the band just progressed so much. Mixing the likes of Dokken, Whitesnake meets Dream Theater really does work for this band.
It has been about 20 yrs since I last interviewed this band, so it was certainly time to catch up with long time friend Stephan to find out what has been happening with this band. The band in recent years have released 2 concept albums 'Chronicles of the Immortals - pt1 & 2', and now 'The Ghost Experiment'. With the stunning new album 'Illuminations' this is yet another fine album of Operatic Progressive Metal that needs to be heard.
Here is what Stephan had to say to the following questions.
So it's so good to speak to you again, it has been such a long time since the last interview, when I was I was doing 'Friday 13th' as a fanzine, something like 20yrs ago or even more.
"Hi Jason, yes it must be at least 26yrs ago since we 1st came in contact, for the 1st album for sure. I hope you are well my good friend."
OK Stephen, I want to start this interview by asking you some questions that go back to the early career of the band. Firstly how successful was the 'Colour Temple' album for you as a debut album?
"Well as we were starting out we played some shows in Germany and when that album was released we got success outside of Germany and we got some good record companies from France and Italy that was the turning point for the band because we had the chance to tour with Angra from Brazil. It was a big step for the band because we played a lot of shows and we also had released our debut album.
We also started to get interviews with fanzines and magazines and I was getting people at university where I worked coming up to me and saying 'I know you're band Vanden Plas', which really shocked me. The album was a collaboration of demos songs which were re-recorded for the debut album. We had influences from the 80's but we also had influences from working as a band in the theater, in which we went into a Progressive Rock/ Metal sound. It was a very successful album for a debut that was for sure."
I remember how powerful the production was for that debut album, a really loud sounding production.
"Yes it was, it was recorded at 'Roko Sound Studios' in Schoneck Hesse (Germany) and we produced it with producer Robert Kohlmeyer. Roko was a pretty big band in Germany, and maybe he was a better engineer than a singer, but the over all sound was really good back then. I remember how I recorded that album, nowadays you have computers and back then I had a 50 watt combo and it was recorded completely different from the way they record these days."
What are you're favourite songs from the 'Colour Temple' album?
"For many years the songs 'Father' and 'Soul Survives' , 'How many Tears', were in our live set lists, and when we released the live CD 'The Spirit of Live', people would be singing these songs so loudly it just blow the band away to hear it live. If I look back I also like the song 'Push', because it was so heavy and 'When the wind Blows' put the band into the Prog Metal scene. I know a lot of bands that don't like their debut albums but I can really say I am so proud of this album.
The songs I like are 'My Crying', 'Soul Survives', 'Father', would be my favourites ."
When you recorded the live CD in Paris you did a cover of Dokken's 'Kiss of Death' and Don Dokken came out on stage with you to sing the song, how did you feel about Don coming to sing the song? Also you're band remind me of Dokken meets Dream Theater, it's your guitar tone that reminds me of George Lynch, do you agree?
"It was recorded on the 'Far off Grace' tour, yes I agree with you with the Dokken style as I am a huge fan of the band, I love Georges guitar work and tone. I think when I was in school in 85/86 when 'Under lock & Key' was released, I was just blown away by his guitar sound and tone, I wanted to have that same sound, he is an amazing guitar player for sure. I think on the 'Colour Temple' album you can hear the George Lynch tone in my guitars. When we played the show in France our label came out and told us that Don was in town and asked if we would like him to come on stage with us, I was totally blown away by this and we met Don and he was a really nice guy and we had a blast playing that song live together."
Moving on, how successful was the 'God Thing' album for the band?
"Well it was a more important album for us because in 97 people still remember this tour and we supported 'Dream Theater' for this album around Europe and the UK. If 5000 people showed up at the show then 4000 of them would be musicians in the crowd and it was a success and but also a difficult thing for us because we are kind of compared to their music, but we are Vanden Plas. We have a lot of different influences but been compared to Dream Theater is not a bad thing at all, it is a compliment."
How did you get along with Dream Theater, did they treat you all well?
"Well John played his bass all day every day and he would take the bass on the buss and practice, it was crazy (laughing). At 1st we were very cautious to talk to them and approach them and in the 1st few days they didn't know us and we left them alone and after a few shows we started saying hello and a very quick chat until they got to know us better. Dream Theater would practice until the doors opened and then we had 10 minutes to get our stuff on stage before we played, it was madness we had no sound check!! We did not complain it is what it is, so we just got on with it.
After about 3-4 show the crew and band were more prepared and we started to get sound checks which was something we needed. The fans did not come to see Vanden Plas, they came to see Dream Theater. After a few shows the band and crew realized that we were professional musician's and we got more respect. We watched them every night at sound check, and I got to know John Petrucci pretty well and he was really cool towards me."
Have you been approached to tour with Dream Theater again since that tour?
"We had met them a few times at festivals and I think it's all down to business, we did that tour but there are so many bands who would like to tour with them and we had our chance to tour with them, I think it's time for other bands to have their chance."
Moving on how did you see the 3rd album 'Far off Grace' as a progression and how successful was that album for you?
"The songs on that album are really different, we had the chance to record in another studio and I think on that album we started to find our own sound and style which has worked really well for us. We still play 'Far Off Grace' live and I guess you could say it is a blue print for the band, and that song was wrote on the Dream Theater tour. I also like songs like 'I can See', and the whole atmosphere on this album is a bit different from the 1st 2 CDs as they were more in the Heavy Metal direction whereas the 3rd album was more of a Progressive Metal release."
Next up was the 'Beyond Daylight", how successful was that for you?
(Laughing) "You are doing every CD, I have to remember all the songs. I think the steps forward between 'Colour Temple' and 'The God Thing' from these 2 CD's to 'Far off Grace' is that this step were far bigger and forwards' Beyond Daylight', and these 2 CD's are closer together. I feel that the song writing is organic and we found our own style."
A long time ago you sent me a football CD 'Keep on Running' & 'Das Ist Fur Euch' ,which I still own, now not many people will know that you recorded 2 songs for you local team 'FC Kaiserslautem', how did that come about for those that don't know about these songs?
"Well our singer Andy was a guest of our local team and they were one of the top teams here in Germany and in 1954 Germany were winning the world cup and so half the team were from 'FC Kaiserslautem', and they are well known for football here in Germany. So the wife's of the players wanted to make a surprise for them and they asked us to make a song for them. We then recorded it and it wasn't a big thing back then and so it was broadcasted live in the football stadium. We had a lot of fun recording those songs, it was something that we don't usually do."
Moving on the band seem to be doing a lot of theater work with the likes of 'Jesus Christ Superstar', 'The Rocky Horror Picture Show', 'Little Shop of Horrors', 'Evita', how did all this come about?
"Well in 1992 Andy was playing in 'The Rocky Horror Show' he was playing the Rocky in our home town and the manager of the theater knew our band and he knew Andy was our singer, he said he needed a in house band to play the music for the musical. So 2 yrs later the theater did the 'Jesus Christ Superstar' and Andy was asked to play Jesus in the play, and they needed a band to do the music. We were asked yet again to do the music for the Rock Opera and they wanted a band that could write big rock opera songs and so we were chosen to be part of this 'Jesus Christ Superstar'. If you saw the movie you would think a rock band could not be involved in such a epic play, but it worked but really well.
The conductor was asked to come and watch us rehearse and we played songs like 'Days of Thunder' and he was so impressed with the sound that he knew he had the right band for the musical. He asked us if we could read notes and we said yes, so we played in a huge theater and it holds 1000 people and the production was also huge for 'Jesus Christ Superstar' and we did that rock opera for 2 yrs. We also played with a orchestra of about 30 musicians and we were playing really heavy with them, which was a lot of fun. Somebody came to see us and were impressed that we were asked to do the 'Little Shop of Horrors' and many more shows."
The next album that you released 'Christ 0' was you're biggest selling album, was it a theatrical album?
"Yes it was our best selling album, a lot of people want us to play 'Postcard to God' because it is our most popular song. With today's situation people are either streaming or downloading albums which is effecting all bands sales, and we have great reviews in Magazines and Websites, they are saying that 'Christ 0' and the new album 'The Ghost Experiment - Illumination' are our best selling albums. Yes it is a theatrical album and Andy created a good story and he said it was perfect for a Rock Opera album. We played live in our home and in Munich on a theater stage."
As we are talking about theatrical material Andy did his project 'Abydos' which was pretty much a musical in some ways, what did you think of that release?
"That album had other musicians involved and it was one big project and Andy wrote the story for that album too. It was a perfect album for a theater production and he played live in a theater for that album, it was a good album for him."
Whilst Andy was doing his own projects did you ever think of doing you're own project?
"Well I write all the songs, and I do songs for the Rock Opera's and to do a project you need a lot of time, this is something I don't have much time for as I am creating songs for the band and the Opera's we do. If somebody like James Hetfield did a solo album then it would make sense, but if you are not very well known then it doesn't make sense to do a project in my opinion."
The next album you recorded 'The Seraphic Clockwork' was the last release before doing the concept albums, this was a great album indeed.
"I think it was an underrated album, I am not a Progressive Rock guy, I do not listen to other orchestral bands and in the beginning I liked the 1st couple of Dream Theater CD's and I don't listen to all Prog Metal/ Rock bands on the earth because I play this type of music and I am not interested in Prog Rock either. I like powerful music and on the other side I like guitarists like George Lynch, John Sykes, and music like Thin Lizzy, Whitesnake, Glenn Hughes. Believe it or not I am a big Slipknot fan, I love the power and intense music they create, and if you listen too 'The Seraphic Clockwork' album you can hear the heaviness in my guitars that could relate to Slipknot."
Moving on now let's talk about the next album which was a concept album 'The Chronicles of the Immortals - Netherworld Pt.1 &2', was it difficult to writes these albums back to back?
"No it was not hard to write these albums because they were planned and we we're asked to write a Rock Opera and in Germany we have a very well known writer called Wolfgang Hohlbein who is a fantasy writer, he sells millions of books which are written in German, I think he has sold about 40.0000 books. Andy had met him and they spoke about doing an idea together and he was writing a book for a Rock Opera and we we're writing music for his book. So we wrote about 25 songs for the Rock Opera and Gunter and myself wrote the songs with progressive elements and we took the songs for the theater, but in the theater we didn't have guitar solos or big breaks as they were not need for that.
We saved them for the album and we cut out the progressive elements for the theater and put them into the album. We knew these 2 albums were different from our previous albums because of the orchestral parts and were much bigger than before. Gunter did some huge orchestral parts for those album and originally they were wrote for the theater and not Vanden Plas, more theatrical. I thought we should do it as we are one of the very few that are doing Rock Opera and we had 6 regular CD's we wanted to try something different which was out of our comfort zone and for us it worked out really well."
Where both albums a success for the band?
"Well success is a big word, if you are playing somewhere like 'Monsters of Rock' then that is successful. Nowadays if a band is successful to release a CD worldwide and you have a following which still loves and supports you then that is success. Success can come at a huge range and if Metallica plays in front of 200 people now than that is not successful, if Vanden Plas played in front of 2000 then we would be successful, it is a point of view."
Next came 'The Ghost Experiment' albums, what are the concepts behind those albums?
"It is a little bit more easier to explain, when we were looking for an idea we wanted it to be a single CD and it ended up been 2 CD's. We did not want it to be a 2 CD release, Andy and myself were talking on the phone with basic ideas called 'The Philip Experiment, which some scientist were trying to create a person who never existed.
So they created a person and gave him a name and they planned his whole life for him but this person wasn't real. They wanted to invent a person who they created. It was a very strange experiment and they wanted to see if they could create a person that never existed.
Andy thought it was a great story for an album, he wrote the story for the album and the guy thinks he has been hunted all the time, people are watching him all the time, that is what happened on the 1st CD. The 2nd CD tells the story were he has found some powers to fight back as a ghost and as the story goes on he realizes the he not real. He think it cannot be true as he feels love and pain, taste and smell things, so he thinks he is real but he has been invented by scientist.
So the scientist have invented an astral-been and they want to control him but at the end of the story they are not able to control him. He then disappears and they are afraid of what might happen and this person has become very powerful. It has an open end so there maybe a follow up in a few years time."
Are concept albums an ongoing thing now for the band?
"Well these things are not planned, we don't need a concept album all the time. Time will tell."
On the new album which songs are you're favourite and how long did it take to record the album?
"Well I am a huge fan of the 1st song 'When the world is falling Down' because of it's metal influence and when I wrote 'Under the Horizon' with Andy we we're working on the chorus and it just sounded right when Andy started to sing it, it's a perfect chorus, the best we have done. It is so huge and it's like something has opened up. When I wrote the song 'Black waltz Death' I realized that this was a very unique song that we never had a song like that in Vanden Plas. Andy thought it was a great song and said we should have a huge ending to it which we did. A lot of writers are saying that this song is not a common Vanden Plas song that you would expect and some writers are saying this song is outstanding.
A lot of people like the song 'Fatal Arcadia', it's very bombastic."
Was it easy to come up with the follow up title 'The Ghost Experiment - Illumination'?
"I spoke to Andy about it and he came up with the 1st part of the title and when we 1st came up with the title for the 1st album we sent them to the label and he said that there were too many songs for the album. The album had more than 80 minutes of music and only 78 minutes would fit on a CD, so there was a decision to leave off 9 songs. I said it didn't make any sense to leave out half of the story, so I spoke to our publisher and they said we should of done 2 CD's, and so we did it.
The 2nd CD starts with 'When the world is falling Down', 'Under the Horizon', 'Black waltz Death' were the only new songs wrote for the 2nd album, the rest were already wrote but had to be put on the 2nd album. I asked Andy if he could extend the story for another 3 songs and he said that was a great idea as there were songs that had some untold stories that he could put into the lyrics."
How long did it take to record this album?
"I really couldn't tell you the time period with the Covid 19 thing going on, usually it takes about a year to record and prepare the album with the mixing and mastering as well. The songs were recorded before lockdown. We had some special guest on the album for the vocal recordings and that was the problem because of the lockdown and so we had to let them record their stuff at home. We had Ulli Perionen doing vocals and she sings on 'Black waltz Death' & 'The Ghost Engineers'. We also had Herbie Langhans who does backing vocals for 'Avantasia', we also had Oliver Hartmann doing vocals, he is also involved with 'Avantasia' and many more guest vocalists. The song 'Kriegkennt Kene Seger' is a bonus song that translated to English means 'War knows no Winners'.
The album was produced by ourselves and we have been doing this for some time now. It was mastered by Markus Teske at 'Bazement Studios' and we have been using this studio since the album 'Beyond Daylight'.Markus is the 6th member of the band, he knows our music so well and he also knows us very well too so we have a good understanding."
Moving on, you must be one of the few bands out there that have kept the same line-up for so many years, what is the special chemistry you have? Congratulations!!!
"Thanks, well when we 1st started we don't live close by each other and so we don't meet every week and so when we started this theater thing we were like a company and everybody in the company is responsible for something. We realized that we got the best results we need Gunter and myself to write the songs and we also need Torsten and Andy that take care of the business side of things within the band. I can make a demo and program the drums and but I don't say to my brother you have to play what I have recorded. He is far to good for that and he knows how to create the best drum patterns for any of our songs. We all have our own special strengths and powers within the band to create the best music we can."
How many promo videos has the band done for the new album?
"Well we did a lyrical video for the song 'Under the Horizon' and we did one for the song 'When the world is falling Down', but I don't think there will be another one for the album, because videos cost money."
Do you think the band will be touring in 2021? It's been such a tough year within the entertainment industry.
"Well if we are lucky enough to tour then yes, we are not a touring band because we do so much theater work it takes a lot of our time up. We can't do the theater work for say 3 months and half way through that just decide to do a tour for a week that doesn't pay that much like theater work does. It doesn't make sense theater work for us is perfect and it helps us express ourselves with our music and on the other side it also limits us to go on a tour."
Well Stephan It has been great speaking to you once again, it's been such along time. I wish all you well and please be safe. Do you have anything to say too the readers?
"Yes I want to thank all the fans for there support, We hope you like the new album as it's a great release. Thank you for the interview Jason, be safe and take care.
Thank you to Gary @ Redsands PR and also Stephan from Vanden Plas.