» Tobias Sammet - Avantasia
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Interview conducted November 27 2018
Interview published April 4 2019

"I can't describe the typical sound of Avantasia."

Avantasia's new making Moonglow was out on February 15th and Metal Covenant was given some time to talk with the project's grand master Tobias Sammet.

Tobbe: So, which guys are performing on this new Avantasia record, that haven't recorded with Avantasia before?

Tobias: It's Hansi Kürsch, from Blind Guardian. It was overdue, because I wanted to have him even on the Metal Opera album [2001], but it never really materialized back then. He was busy, you know. We're talking quite a lot on the phone, but in particular, like 2 or 3 years ago I said "If I ever do an album again, I will ask you." and he said "Yeah, yeah, yeah. I know it didn't work out on the first one, but…". And now I had this passage in the beginning of The Raven Child, and in the Book Of Shallows as well, but it all started with The Raven Child.

The beginning was meant to be sung by a female singer, but I thought that would be too obvious. It's Celtic harp, and world music elements, and soundtrack elements, and for some reason it would have been too obvious to ask a woman. So I said "Who could transport that, in that Celtic, majestic way?" - "Hansi Kürsch.". And I asked him and he said yes.

Second new singer is Mille Petrozza, which was overdue too, because we have talked about it quite a few times, because he sung on one Edguy record, on a bonus track, Mysteria, for the Hellfire Club album [2004]. We spoke about that he one day has to be part of Avantasia, and we are good friends, and he said yeah, yeah. But I never had a part for him, because of course you cannot exactly have Mille sing on a song that is meant to be sung by a nightingale. [Laughs] But now I had this aggressive part [in the song Book Of Shallows], and Mille is a force of nature, and I wanted an aggressive voice and I thought "That's the right part for Mille!".

I'm not into growl vocals that much, but in Mille's case: he's a force of nature, he is true, it's not showing off, it's not a cheap effect, it's his authentic personality. He said "Of course, Tobi, I wanna do it, but let me listen to the song first." and "Oh, it's a demanding song. And I really wanna do it well and I wanna do it justice, because if I'm gonna be on the record with Geoff Tate, and Michael Kiske, and Jørn Lande, and Hansi Kürsch, I wanna do something good.". And I thought that was great. He took it as a challenge and said "I wanna do the song justice, and it's a great song. But it's not a bonus track this time, is it?" and I said "No, Mille. It's not a bonus track.". He's so cool; we're friends. But I find it almost cute how, of course it's supposed to be a serious issue, but how serious it was to him to deliver something.

And Candice Night is new on the record as well. I didn't have her in particular on my mind. I had her voice on my mind, but I didn't know who it belonged to. It's a very demanding song that she is singing on, in the chorus; very difficult to sing, and I needed a powerful voice for that chorus. But in the verse it's very, very peaceful and a very, very innocent voice is needed and I was looking "Who could be the right voice for such a song?". I went through my record collection and "It's got to be Candice Night.". And I asked her, and she listened and liked the song, so.

Yeah, and also Geoff Tate for the first time is singing on several songs; not just on one song. So he's not a new one, but he's gonna be on the tour. And this is the first time he is gonna join me on tour. We did a few one-off shows last year together and we spoke about how great it is to let magic happen in the studio together and not just send files back and forth. So I said "Okay Geoff. I'm working on a new Avantasia record. You wanna hook up in the studio together?" and he said "Yeah, sure. Let's go to a studio.". So he was flying over to Germany for the recordings, we met in the studio, we wined and dined together, and he was singing, and it was magical. He's such a great guy and he's such an original singer. He inspired all of us; he even inspired Michi Kiske.

So, it was great to have him sing so many parts on the record. It's exciting, you know. And yet I have to say, a lot people are asking "Is there anybody left on your bucket list?", even though there are many singers involved, and I'm proud of it, I never considered it to be a trophy list. It's really: those people on the record really contributed something precious and unique and serve the result.

Tobbe: So take me through the story. Just quickly.

Tobias: Actually it is not really a story. It is based on a story, but I'm not telling a story in the lyrics because, for myself, I have made the decision and I've come to the conclusion that if you wanna tell a story, like in a novel or in a movie, you have to pay tribute to the art of suspense. You have to explain a lot and explaining doesn't really work in the music format of 10 songs. I approached it as writing 10 individual poems, that would together be based on one total concept.

The subtitle of the album is The Narratives Of A Misplaced Entity, and it's about a creature, or a homunculus, that is created into a world where it doesn't find a place for itself, and it realizes that it doesn't really cope with its environment and it doesn't really cope with reality and the given facts of the bold and the beautiful, and it seeks shelter in the dark and escapes into darkness, into a place where it can be invisible and at peace with itself. And in that darkness, in that escapist world, it finds a door through imagination to a different world where it actually feels it's where it belongs.

And the whole album is about being different, being a misfit, sticking out like a sore thumb, and about how art is a way out of that uncomfortable situation of being exposed to a world that you don't wanna be exposed to, pretty much. It is based on a story that I am writing, but I didn't wanna explain everything. I didn't wanna connect the dots. I wanted to create poems and I wanted to deliver the dots that would stimulate imagination of the listener, but not deliver the connection of the dots, and the explanation, and "Once upon a time there were 5 dwarves walking through a forest." - "No.". The whole thing; it's really: what was so exciting about it was I could write about me.

I could write my own feelings down and throw them at a character, attach them to a character in a fantastic world that was heavily inspired by the great Victorian writers, who paid tribute to the Gothic novel, like Arthur Machen and Algernon Blackwood, William Somerset Maugham; these people, who paid tribute to Edgar Allan Poe and E.T.A. Hoffmann. So it's a very dark romanticism inspired world. And it's weird; it's a very Victorian record. I wrote a lot of it in England, I have to say, because I find it very inspiring and also I could recover a little bit being in England. So that's the story in brief words. Relatively brief, for me.

Tobbe: To what extent do you listen to each singer's more recent work before you decide what you want out of their performance?

Tobias: Well, I listen to recent stuff. You have to get a feeling for what the voice of each singer sounds like. It does make sense; I don't want anybody to hire me for singing something that I have sung 22 years ago or something like that. [Laughs] So, of course you listen to recent records, but I mean, whatever I write for certain singers is not an exact blueprint of what I wanna have; it's an idea. And I'm working with these amazing singers who have earned their laurels and reputation for the right reason.

So they are very, very, very well-established singers. You don't work with these people because you want them to deliver exactly what you want; you want to work with those people so they can fill your ideas with their personality. If somebody says "Hey Tobi. I think I will sing this a little different.". - "Well, great! Do it your way.". I want it to sound like Geoff Tate; I don't want it to sound like my idea of Geoff Tate. I remember, when we did The Scarecrow [2008], Jørn came to the studio and I had sung a passage for him in the title track and he said, like, with this great Norwegian accent, "No, I don't sing that high. That's not my voice." and he delivered something completely different and I said "That's great!" and he said like "Is it okay for you? Because I changed it quite a bit.". Spontaneously. He's a freak.

Jørn is an absolute amazing force of nature, a talent, a freak! He's so good. No rehearsing, nothing. He heard the track; I didn't even send it to him beforehand. "No, I don't sing like that.". Changed everything, sang it once, and it was there. "What do you think? Something in that direction?" - "No, Jørn. Not something in that direction. We keep it. Next song.". Things like that happen, but that's because I have worked with such great artists. It's a gift for me to work with these people, because you learn so much.

I get vocal lessons every night when we're on tour with Avantasia; from the best. I mean, imagine you're a young singer, I'm not that young anymore, but I used to be a young singer, and I'm on stage with Eric Martin of Mr. Big, Geoff Tate, I used to be on stage with Michael Kiske every night, Jørn Lande, Ronnie Atkins, Bob Catley. It's amazing.

Tobbe: In your own personal opinion, do people, and specifically journalists, concentrate too much on the vocalists in Avantasia instead of concentrating a little bit more on the music? Because we have spoken about the singers pretty much all the time now and not so much about the music.

Tobias: Well, everybody asks about the singers, because the record label always does like "The new record features…" and then, you know, put a sticker on it. Well, they don't do that anymore, I think. But I think it's natural because they are great names. I don't really care why the album sells, you know; I want it to sell… [Laughs] I think the great songs are the foundation.

I don't wanna blow my own trumpet too hard, but still, everybody knows that it's down to the song, because otherwise you might as well go to a music fair and see all these cracks playing music that nobody cares about. You could go to a jazz concert; great musicians, but everybody against everybody and, in general, why? [Laughs] Not every jazz concert, but free jazz. So, they're all great players, but nobody wants to listen to those players when they don't play great songs.

In essence, you know, I think even the singers on the new record in their own bands are so known because they have both; they have great vocals and they've always sung in great bands. I mean, Magnum, Bob Catley, great voice, but it's great songs of Tony Clarkin. And I think in our case nobody would talk about Avantasia if the singers were great, but the songs were shit. If the songs were great and the singers were shit, nobody would talk about Avantasia either. So I think of course it's a natural given fact that both have to work.

Tobbe: Even if Moonglow isn't a carbon copy of Ghostlights [2016], it definitely has the more recent Avantasia sound, and in your own words, what is the Avantasia sound today?

Tobias: Oh, I have no clue. I can't describe it. I mean, if I could simply describe it I wouldn't have to record it, you know. It would be much easier to just write it down and say "Hey! Look! This is our new record. What do you think about it? I've written it down on a piece of paper.". But I think the DNA is there, and you can hear it, even in the songs that have a little reminiscence of Bach. Requiem For A Dream for example; that's very Bach inspired; Johann Sebastian Bach.

You have songs that are inspired more, like, by Danny Elfman; like Invincible that's a bit Queensrÿche/Avantasia/Danny Elfman. There's different kinds of influences in there, but every single bit of music has the DNA of Avantasia. Ghost In The Moon could be a little bit Meat Loaf-ish, but it is Avantasia. So to be honest with you: I don't know how to describe it. It's colorful, there's no boundaries, no limits. The only limit is if I don't like something, then I won't do it. I can't describe the typical sound of Avantasia. It's epic, colorful, diverse and not narrow-minded.

Tobbe: You once told me that you don't wanna make the same record twice, because that would be cheating your fans or something. So do you in some way try to distance yourself just a little bit from the last record when you write for a new record?

Tobias: No, I don't think about it, really. I know what I meant when I said I don't wanna make the same record twice. That means I don't wanna do it on purpose. I don't wanna do it, because people say "Hellfire Club [Edguy, 2004] was a huge success. Please do this album again.". - "No, I can't. And why would I? I have done it before.".

But if I, by chance, wrote an album with songs that remind you of Hellfire Club, for sure, at least I can be sure that the songwriter of the original would not sue me, you know. [Laughs] So I wouldn't be afraid of doing it if I felt like I needed to do it or if coincidently I did something that was reminiscent of something I had done in the past. But I wanna do things that are not forced.

It's naturally exciting to me to do new things, to try out new combinations and try out new elements and everything, but it's not like I say "How can I do something that is so different from the last record so that everybody will be completely amazed by it?". By the way, who would be amazed if it was so different from what I have done in the past? So I've never approached it that way.

Tobbe: If you would really try to make a song similar to what you did when you were, like, 22, would that be possible?

Tobias: I think it would be possible, but I don't know if it would even mean... A song is not only something that you do with your conscious, reasonable decision. I mean, there's intuition in the songwriting of an honest songwriter. I could say "Now I'm gonna write something that is, on the surface, similar to Tears Of A Mandrake [Edguy, 2001] or Reach Out For The Light [2001]." and try to approach it the same way I did back then, but the missing thing would be: when I wrote the original song, I didn't approach it as writing something old, because then it felt natural.

That same song back then was something you were just discovering; it was new territory. A sabre in one hand, a torch in the other, and you were trying to go and do something that was state of the art. Explore new things, try out new things; it was exciting, "Wow! I haven't done this before. This is completely new.". And now it would be more put together on a drawing board. So, I could throw in all these elements, and I could do it, but it wouldn't have the quintessence of what it had back then

Tobbe: This is the first time that you put out two Avantasia records in a row without having an Edguy full-length album in between, so is it easier for you to write Avantasia songs today, or is it more inspiring to write Avantasia songs?

Tobias: Obviously, when I wrote the album it was easier, because otherwise I'm sure I would have done an Edguy album. I have to explain how Moonglow came together. It was: I didn't wanna do anything. I came from the Ghostlights tour, I didn't have a record deal, not with Edguy, not with Avantasia; out of contract. I felt a bit tired and to me it seemed like everybody else had a clear vision of what I was supposed to do next. My former bandmates… My former? [Laughs] The bandmates… [Can't stop laughing] My former bandmates? [Still laughing]

It was really funny: when we did the listening session for the album one guy said "When was the last time you spoke to your bandmates?" and I said "Like today." and he said "Why?" and I said "Because our rehearsing room has been flooded." and that was true. And he said "So that's the reason to talk to your bandmates?" - "No, we actually talked yesterday. We had an email conversation about a contractual thing with Japan.".

Anyway, not my former bandmates; my other bandmates, my bandmates. Well, I came back from the tour and they were waiting for me. They were sitting there and they knew exactly what was coming next, the record label knew exactly what was coming next, promotors were asking "Who are you playing with in Wacken next year? Is it Edguy or Avantasia?". Everybody knew exactly what I was doing next and I was just like "You're nuts! Everybody knows what I'm doing next.". And even other promotors were asking about Avantasia and I said "No. I'm not gonna do anything. I'm gonna have a break.". So I said "Okay. What am I gonna do? I'm gonna do nothing.".

But of course play a little music. I had a couple of song ideas that I thought would maybe become a solo album. I wasn't sure. Funny enough, one was Ravenblack, that we took for the Monuments album [Edguy compilation, 2017] and the other one, that was originally called Unleash The Kraken, became Open Sesame [Also on Monuments]. So I had a couple of song ideas and said "I'm not doing anything now.". And I needed a hobby, because I was burned-out. I was looking back and said "Okay. I've written 17 albums in the past 20 years and I've done 10 world tours in 15 years.". I was tired and thought "Do I have the right to be tired and do I have the right to be fed-up with fulfilling expectations of everybody around?".

Stupidly enough I built a studio as a hobby; at home. I wrote songs and after a while I said "Okay. This will become material, but also we have the 25th anniversary of Edguy, so we got to do something with that too.". Because 25 years. I mean, 25 years pretty much in the original lineup is nothing we should take for granted. "Let's go! Let's celebrate this! Let's put a best of album out!". But I was so happy that I didn't have a contract to do a full album and that was a really relieving situation for me. So we did the Monuments album, we compiled everything, we put the book together. We did it all by ourselves. I mean, it was like: collecting the pictures; everybody was throwing in their hard drives. And meanwhile I worked on material. It could have been a solo record, but then I realized "It sounds like Avantasia, and by the way, Avantasia is a solo project. It's not a band project.".

It felt much easier for me to work as a solo artist than in a band situation, because in a band it's like you're married to 4 people. There's no sex, but you're married to 4 people. When you work as a band you always have to make sure that you take responsibility for the quality of the material, but also you have to make everybody happy in a way, because everybody is part of the team, no matter how big the input is. And that's difficult sometimes. After 10 albums it's sometimes difficult, especially when you realize that it's taken for granted. I couldn't have written an Avantasia album either, if I had planned it. I was sick of living up to a schedule.

And it became an Avantasia record and of course then I thought "Now that I'm about to do one there is no point not releasing it. I have managed both bands, always. I was sick of that as well. I said, like "It's, like, too much.", so I hired an attorney to get me a record deal for Avantasia. Because I wanted out of my working routine. And of course we went to all different record labels, tried new things, and of course in the end I ended up with Nuclear Blast. That's the record deal he got for me. Nothing really new, but it was, like, breaking out of a routine.

Tobbe: You call Avantasia a project, but can a project last for this long actually? Is it still a project, after so many records?

Tobias: Yes, it is. I mean, I don't know what the difference is. What is it if it's not a project? It's not a band, because a band is usually when 5 people throw in their ideas. I mean, it's a solo thing. Of course, I have all these great people around and it's exciting to write for different singers, and they have a say and everything, but down the line it's like a solo thing. I make the decision; nobody else. I don't have to explain myself to anybody else, I don't have to cope with anybody else with song ideas. Well, that's the next thing. [Laughs]

Well, you know, it sounds worse than it actually is. But it's the truth, you know. You can fulfil your own ideas, your own visions, without explaining yourself to anybody. And I'm not only referring to my bandmates; I'm also referring to: you don't have to please anybody on the outside. You don't have to please the record industry, because I can afford producing a record even without getting an advance from my record label. I can do anything I like, and there's no limits and boundaries, and a band always has limits and boundaries, because there's more people involved.

A band gives you a certain amount of security, because you don't have to rely on other people's schedules. You know, you're there as a band and you say "Okay, next year we're gonna tour.". It's not gonna be "Oh, we can't do that show. There is a Magnum show." or "We can't do that. There's a Pretty Maids show.". It's a different thing. So is it a project or is it not a project? I don't know any better term. But if you come up with a good term I might have the record label use that in the future. My wife is a journalist and she always says "Don't call it project when the record label sends in these little band information biographies.".

It's only that project has so negative connotations, because project usually sounds like something that comes from Frontiers Records and lasts for one album [Laughs], or maybe two, because the same songwriter has to nourish 55 other bands, with the same musicians.

Tobbe: About a solo album. Could you make a solo album, even if you have Edguy and Avantasia still, with kind of different type of songs?

Tobias: Yesterday or the day before yesterday I was flying to Helsinki and I was listening to Tina Turner and Bruce Springsteen in my headphones. I thought, like "Oh, that would be a great type of music to be playing.". So yes, but right now it's out of the question, because, you know, if I did something in the vein of Edguy it would be a slap in the face to the other guys and if I did something like Avantasia it would be stupid, because I could call it Avantasia and sell 10 times as much. And I don't wanna spread myself thin.

It's really funny, because I met Chris von Rohr from Krokus last year and he said: …well, I can't say it with his Swiss accent… "Tobi! I hear you're doing all these kinds of things. You're playing here with Avantasia, with Edguy, you're everywhere and doing all these things. Don't spread yourself thin!". He used a nice German term for it that doesn't really exist, but it was really funny.

And he's right, you know. I don't wanna be one of those songwriters writing songs here and there, and always got another band there, and got another band there, and another one… I was approached often to do these kinds of things, but I was never really into the idea.

Tobbe: You've got a cover track on the album, Maniac [Originally by Michael Sembello.], and have you ever considered making a full cover album?

Tobias: No. I have a lot of ideas for cover songs. It's great fun, but nobody needs it. I mean, if my favorite bands release a cover album, my interest is very, very lukewarm. So it would be great as a giveaway, as a bonus, but nobody would need it. These kinds of things are made to be given away as bonus tracks, or on a limited edition, or whatever.

Tobbe: Could you write a bunch of instrumental songs, or do you need a vocal melody to really hit the target for a song?

Tobias: Yeah, I need vocals. I like classically influenced music and of course I like interludes and stuff. I like Jerry Goldsmith, but even his strongest songs, like Ave Satani from the Omen soundtrack, which is one of the most evil songs I've ever heard in my entire life, have vocals. I like some movie scores and I can imagine writing something like that, but I think a good song always has vocals, except Popcorn [By Hot Butter.] maybe.

Tobbe: Do people think you're a demanding person?

Tobias: Well, I don't know. You would have to ask people that I've worked with. A lot of people think I'm just, like, this tank that's saying I wanna have things my way, but actually I'm a very reflective person. I question myself and my behavior very, very often. Sascha Paeth, who is a good friend of mine and a producer, actually says that I'm not too bad. [Laughs]

I ask him a lot "Am I stubborn?" and he says "No, actually you're one of the most open-minded musicians I've worked with, because you know what you wanna do and what you don't wanna do, but if somebody makes a good suggestion you're never married to your idea and you really honestly check if someone else's idea is better.". And that's something that I think you need in order to get better yourself too. So demanding in terms of: Everybody has to contribute their best. I get demanding when people don't contribute their best.

When people don't pay attention to something, then I get frustrated, because then I feel "Everybody is putting in a lot of work here, and somebody screws up.". Everybody makes mistakes, but if somebody screws up because he's lazy and not giving everything and expect others to give everything, then I can get very, very angry. But I'm not overly demanding; I don't think so.

Tobbe: If you would have picked a band name today, would you have picked a band name like Avantasia for this project?

Tobias: I think so. It sounds really, really, really good. I was asked about where the name came from and I thought it's a bit Spinal Tap, but it sounds like something Walt Disney could have come up with, it sounds like Cirque du Soleil, it sounds like something visual, something epic, something high gloss, something big, something mainstream. Yeah, it's good. It's not too bad. Could be worse.

I mean, you know, I would not come up with a name like Edguy today, to be honest. We were 14 years old and we tried to find a unique name, and we're stuck with it. We found a unique name, but unique is not necessarily an attribute that stands for quality. [Laughs] Unique, you know, a horse with 7 eyes would be unique too.

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