PART 1 OF INTERVIEW WITH ROLAND GRAPOW OF MASTERPLAN (AND EX-HELLOWEEN)
Date: January 29, 2016
GUITARIST, PRODUCER, SONGWRITER AND EVEN LEAD VOCALIST, ROLAND GRAPOW HAS HANDLED ALL OF THESE DUTIES, MOST OF THEM ON NUMEROUS OCCASIONS AND OFTEN WITH GREAT SUCCESS. KNOWN WIDELY FOR HIS TENURE AS ONE OF THE GUITARISTS IN HELLOWEEN FROM 1989 TO 2001, GRAPOW WAS ABLE TO REINVENT HIMSELF WITH OWN BAND MASTERPLAN, WHICH SINCE 2003 HAS RELEASED FIVE STUDIO ALBUMS AND MORE RECENTLY THE LIVE CD/DVD ‘KEEP YOUR DREAM ALIVE.’ SLEAZE ROXX CAUGHT UP WITH GRAPOW TO DISCUSS MASTERPLAN’S NEW LIVE CD/DVD AND FUTURE PLANS BUT ALSO TO HAVE THE TALENTED MUSICIAN PROVIDE HIS THOUGHTS ON ALL OF THE STUDIO ALBUMS THAT HE WAS A PART OF DURING HIS TIME IN BOTH HELLOWEEN AND MASTERPLAN. PART 1 OF INTERVIEW COVERS MASTERPLAN’S NEW LIVE CD/DVD ALONG WITH GRAPOW’S SOLO ALBUMS AND MOST OF HIS TIME IN HELLOWEEN.
Sleaze Roxx: Congratulations on the first Masterplan live CD/DVD. From reading the CD booklet, it seems that you had planned on releasing this type of album for a long time. How come it took so long to release such an album?
Roland Grapow: To be honest, there is always like some technical stuff with the record label or something like that because the plan of Masterplan releasing a [live] DVD or CD was already from the beginning of our career like even 15 years ago. I remember that we recorded live shows especially in Düsseldorf [Germany] when we supported Hammerfall with the old line-up and I certainly have those records or those recordings, which are not that long. It’s around 45 minutes with Jorn [Lande] and Uli Kusch and the old line-up and it was a great show! AFM Records never wanted to release something live so early. They said maybe after three or four albums and then you know, then we had those line-up changes all the time. I felt now we have a stable line-up and I think it’s time to release something finally now, which took a long time. That’s why it took so long.
Sleaze Roxx: So “Keep Your Dream Alive’ is actually very heavy on the first Masterplan album, which I get because it is a very good album. How hard was it coming up with a setlist for the live CD/DVD?
Roland Grapow: Well, that’s not easy because you know, especially we already have five albums out so then you can choose a lot. I just realized of course that most of the classic songs are on the first two albums with Jorn [Lande] and Uli [Kusch], and a lot of people wanted to hear that. With Rick [Altzi] in the band singing and [bassist] Jari [Kainulainen], they really like these old songs as well and that’s why we are choosing more or less 60 to 70% of the old stuff and just highlights of you know, singles or extra songs. We included ‘MK II’, ‘Time To Be King’ and the new album so it’s more or less about making the fans happy. That’s the main thing you know? That’s why for the next album, we are planning a studio album next year where we will go back to the roots a little bit and want to get our old style of songwriting a little bit coming back.
Sleaze Roxx: Cool! That’s great! And when can we expect to have the next Masterplan studio album out?
Roland Grapow: We have a package deal that we signed with AFM [Records] that we signed. It’s like a new deal after ten to twelve years or something. We signed it at the beginning of last year. The first part was the DVD that we were released. The second part, which we are just doing now — I am recording my guitars, re-recording my old Helloween songs with Masterplan. I feel like this will be something special because Helloween is totally ignoring my part of their career in the band. So they never play any songs of mine live. The same with Uli Kusch, which I don’t know… some stupid things. I just realized that over the years, these were just really strong powerful songs and at that time, I played the guitar with a slightly different sound but most of the stuff, if you analyze it, it’s very close to the Masterplan style.
So we just want to make a fresh recording of these older songs and we want to put some parts of those songs in our live set. We already did “The Chance” in South America and the last European tour. That’s the kind of plan — just my back catalog more or less coming into the Masterplan section, which the fans in the future can also appreciate a little bit more. That’s the main thing because I feel ignored from the Helloween guys. There are no problems with the band or anything but I think that we just do not get any support from them anymore. The same for Uli Kusch. This will be released in October this year and the next studio album is coming very quick after that so it will be maybe February or March of next year.
Sleaze Roxx: I can’t wait for those albums to come out! So I was hoping that I could take you through a memory lane tour in terms of you revisiting some of the albums that you have released over the years. Is that OK?
Roland Grapow: Yes, yes. Of course! Of course!
Sleaze Roxx: If we go back to your Helloween days, the first album that you were on with Helloween was the ‘Pink Bubbles Go Ape’ album. You were following up the two ‘Keeper’ albums at that point. Was there any pressure on Helloween to follow up those albums?
Roland Grapow: I really love the ‘Keeper I’ and ‘II’ [albums]. I was never a fan of ‘Walls Of Jericho’ because I don’t like the singing kind of sound there. A couple of good songs we always played — one song “How Many Tears” especially as an encore. I like that song. I was a big fan of ‘Keeper I’ and ‘II’, and then of course when I joined the band, the be honest, I didn’t really know the band so well. I was never really a metal guy. I was more listening to rock and melodic rock like Journey, Styx, Foreigner… I started with Rainbow and all these bands. About the same as Weiki [Michael Weikath] to be honest. We’re big fans of Michel Schenker and Scorpions and Uli Roth. We mainly had the same guitar idols like Ritchie Blackmore.
But then, when I joined the band, I was totally free and without any pressure to be honest. But then, when we started songwriting, of course, I wanted to do a good job and wanted to be the best for the band. I found that I was maybe one third of the main songwriters. The other was like Michael Kiske and Weiki. They went to a different direction totally. I was shocked and surprised — like these ballads we had and “Heavy Metal Hamsters.” And then “Windmill” which was on the ‘Chameleon’ album, which was supposed to be on the ‘Pink Bubbles [Go Ape]’ already. The producer Chris Tsangarides was like, “What’s going on here? The new guy is the only guy that writes heavy metal songs.” [Laughs]
Sleaze Roxx: [Laughs]
Roland Grapow: That’s why I was confused. They had a lot of problems there. But it was not about me. It was about Michael Weikath and Michael Kiske. They wanted to go somewhere else like the Queen direction, which we did on the next album. But you can imagine — I was the oldest guy in the band but I was the new guy. I was very shy. I could not speak English at that time. So especially talking to Chris Tsangarides and management, Sanctuary… I forget the name — the Iron Maiden management! So I was really always behind listening and analyzing and thinking “Something is not right here [laughs].” But there was no pressure to replace Kai Hansen to be honest. I was totally free about that.
Sleaze Roxx: ‘Chameleon’ obviously was a huge departure for Helloween. What do you think of that album more than 20 years later?
Roland Grapow: I think it’s something that the band needed to do. I know that a lot of people hated it in the beginning but a lot of people now — they’re 20 years older — and they just realize it’s like a good rock album with heavy metal guys playing rock and all these instruments that we had. For me, it was totally easy. You know, I told you that I came from this melodic stuff but there is also a lot of ’70s era when you hear my song “Music” or my guitar part on “When The Sinner.” I was listening at that time a lot to Stevie Ray Vaughan because Michael Kiske and I were totally nuts about him. Maybe because of the reasons that he died at that time — at the [time of the] ‘Pink Bubbles [Go Ape]’ recording sessions. We were in Denmark in the studio and he died and we were so shocked. Michael Kiske as well. We were really big fans. But you can hear all these influences on the ‘Chameleon’ album — Brian May — a lot of Queen parts that I did. It’s like — all my guitar heroes — I put them into my guitar playing somehow in these rock songs. I liked it somehow and I still like it. It’s a really deep album that is not so much for the big metal fans. I think it’s timeless when you listen to that album.
Sleaze Roxx: You know what? I really like the album, It’s very different but I think it’s a good album. Now, the next album, obviously there was a big change with Michael Kiske leaving and Andi Deris coming in. Really, it was more of a classic Helloween album at that point. What do you think of “Master Of The Rings?’
Roland Grapow: ‘Master Of The Rings” was definitely necessary because we lost a lot of our fan base. Michael Kiske wanted to sort of keep this kind of style for the next album. He wanted to follow this path and he really wanted to go away. And because he changed — there was something going on in his kind of mind. I don’t know what it was but he changed. He went at that time vegetarian — everything at once. He changed let’s say in three months, he tried to change so much and everybody was confused. He was always talking. I mean, he is a really strong character. You can talk and try to make a discussion with him. It will take hours because you can’t change his opinion! You know, if he has an opinion, he’s hard to change. You know his story about heavy metal. He is now back a little bit but it wasn’t easy [laughs]. So ‘Master Of the Rings’ was really necessary for the fan base and of course, it was a lot of fun to write again and to see that people loved it. After that, we were successful again which was really nice. So ‘Master Of The Rings’ was the start and ‘Time Of The Oath’ was just the next piece. After that, we reached a really high level again.
Sleaze Roxx: I noticed that on ‘Time Of The Oath’, your songwriting contributions started diminishing with Helloween. Was that an issue while you were in the band?
Roland Grapow: I think that’s when the problems started for me because you know, even from the beginning, either though I was the new guy and replacement for Kai [Hansen] or whatever, I was treated at the beginning as a member of the main guys for the songwriting. And also, I was available always to talk to the press. I was invited to press conferences and making promotions with Michael Kiske. The management then decided that because at that time, everybody was just having two guys in the band presenting — like [Rob] Halford and [Glenn] Tipton [in Judas Priest] or let’s say the Aerosmith guys you know? Like the singer and one guitar player only… And that’s what it was also [laughs] in Helloween. So for ‘Master Of The Rings’ — Michael Weikath was the original member and the new singer [Andi Deris] were presenting the band. And I was totally maybe stupid in that way. I was jealous and not happy about this. I couldn’t talk about my songwriting. I couldn’t talk about guitars. You know, I was so into it. I was really rehearsing every day five to six hours, and I wanted to really be a good musician in that band. But I started getting these problems so I started writing songs for my solo album. That’s why and after that, my solo album came out. Also, Andi Deris’ solo album came out at the same time. I wanted to show how much I could do outside Helloween. That’s why there’s a big lack of songwriting also on the next one.
Sleaze Roxx: Yes. Now, I noticed for your first solo album ‘Four Seasons Of Life’ that you handled the lead vocals and that you are actually a very good singer. So how come you only did that for one album and ever since then and even in Masterplan, you have always had a singer. How come you don’t handle the lead vocals yourself?
Roland Grapow: Oh! Thanks so much man! The main reason is that I really like singing — I love singing. I started at the same time to be honest more or less learning guitar and singing because of my favorite musicians. That’s why I started making music because of Max Carl of Grand Funk Railroad. I really could not sing like him. You know, older people my age — I was even singing in Hamburg [Germany] in a cover band if you listen to the recordings that I did in the beginning of the ’90s. But it was a different type of singing. So when I started my solo album, I was more or less trying to copy Michael Kiske’s style, which I love as well but it’s a different technique. I think at that time, I was not really 100% good enough. I think I needed some guys teaching me a little bit how to work with the technique. Now, you won’t believe it — after such a long break — I want to sing on the new Masterplan album the Kiske parts. Rick [Altzi] is doing the Jorn [Lande] or the heavier parts. We sing a lot on this album together. So that’s why I have been developing the last two years and I am much better now. I hope that I can surprise some people again.
Sleaze Roxx: Cool! That sounds exciting! So the next Helloween album is ‘Better Than Raw’ and on that one, none of your songs apparently made it onto that album. So what are your thoughts about that album?
Roland Grapow: I think that the album is pretty good to be honest. I mean, my impact is still there as a guitar player. And I helped on the Uli Kusch songs and I worked very close to the songwriting with the other guys but I was a little bit out of batteries. I don’t know what it was. I wasn’t really inspired anymore. Like I said, it started at around the time of ‘Time Of The Oath.’ I had lots of fun anyways — a lot — but I only wrote one song! And then for ‘Better Than Raw’, I contributed two to three ideas, and then Andi Deris said, “That’s crap! [laughs]” He did not like it and slowly, the band started talking behind my back. “This guy is not working for us anymore 100%. He’s just into his solos albums which are really good.” You know, they really liked it. Deris said to me: “Why are you not presenting these great songs to us? [laughs]” That’s why we had big trouble after ‘Better Than Raw.’
Sleaze Roxx: You actually released another solo album [‘Kaleidoscope’] after ‘Better Than Raw’ but on that one, you did not handle the lead vocals. Why did you decide to do that?
Roland Grapow: To be honest, they are pretty much the same because the reaction to my first solo album was quite mixed. A lot of people were surprised that I can sing so good and some guys — especially in the German press, Metal Hammer, I remember those guys — he said, “You shouldn’t sing.”
Sleaze Roxx: [Laughs] Really?
Roland Grapow: Yeah. The reactions were from really enthusiastic — like “Wow!” — and other guys saying “Fuck! This is shit [laughs].”
Sleaze Roxx: [Laughs]
Roland Grapow: And I was so sensitive about it that I said, “OK. I’ll stop singing.” This was the biggest mistake I did I guess. I should have just done the same thing that I did for the guitar playing learning it for many hours. I never did it with my vocals. That’s the problem. But you should do it if you want to be a great singer like Jorn [Lande] or Rick [Altzi] or Michael Kiske. Geoff Tate — all these guys — it’s a learning process. Even if you have good singing — I mean, I can sing. I am very good in tune. I am very good as a producer of course arranging choirs and harmonies. Everything that Michael Kiske was singing on my songs, I was singing already on the previous versions. It’s the same stuff that I presented to him — the ideas, the songwriting. But now I’m back! The main reason was because of guys who were quite important in Germany said to me, “Nah. No. That’s not that good. Stop singing!” Now I’m back hopefully soon [laughs].
STAY TUNED FOR PART 2 OF THE INTERVIEW WITH ROLAND GRAPOW IN THE COMING DAYS…