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Interviews Avantasia

Interview with vocalist Tobias Sammet

Interview conducted by Luxi Lahtinen

Date online: December 13, 2018


Top picture by Ville Myllylä

Thanks to Silke Yli-Sirniö of Nuclear Blast Records and Tough Enough Promotion for setting up the interview and tasteful gloggs

Tobias Sammet, a very gifted and delightfully friendly German musician, first gained fame as the vocalist of Power Metal institution Edguy. In 2001, when Edguy was about to release the band's sixth studio album, Mandrake, Tobias was also working his "side project", Tobias Sammat's Avantasia, because he had an urgent need to do something bigger and more ambitious in which a huge number of guest musicians would also play major roles.

The first Avantasia album, aptly titled The Metal Opera, saw the light of day in July 2001 and it became so successful it would have been a crime to leave that project as a one album miracle. The story of Avantasia was born.

It's November 27, 2018, and yours truly was enjoying a warm cup of alcohol-free glogg together with a friend and a PR lady in a hotel lobby in Helsinki, Finland, while waiting my turn to interview Mr. Sammett about Avantasia's eight studio album, Moonglow, among other things. All of our cups were emptied quickly. It's time to meet Tobias to talk about the new album, the guest musicians involvement with the record, disadvantages of the Internet and so on. Now let Tobias lead the ship from this moment on...

Luxi: First off, welcome to freezing Finland, Tobias.

Tobias: Thank you for having me today.

Luxi: ... and, of course, congratulations on your 41st birthday, which you celebrated last week.

Tobias: Thank you very much. Thank you very much.

Luxi: Did you celebrate it in a special way?

Tobias: I was at IKEA.

Luxi: Finding some furniture for yourself perhaps?

Tobias: No, actually my daughter likes IKEA a lot. When you have a kid, of course, the kid is the boss in the house. You want to do everything that makes her happy. We celebrated my birthday at IKEA. I bought a little table I think and a desk lamp.

Luxi: Well, at least not a typical way to celebrate a birthday.

Tobias: Yes, you could say so. I don't really celebrate it that much because it's not my personal achievement. It's not like winning a silver medal at the Olympics; I would celebrate that but a birthday, everybody has it. We should congratulate my mother or my father. I didn't have anything to do with my birthday except to pop out. I don't really celebrate it that much.

Luxi: Let's start with your eighth Avantasia album, titled Moonglow. It's a concept album with each song linked to each other. Was it a complicated process to write the music and lyrics and make them flow?

Tobias: Everything went pretty much hand in hand. It was not my first goal to create a specific arc of suspense. When you write a concept album and you want to try to approach it like a novel, then you can have difficulty creating an arc of suspense as well as explaining every aspect of a story that is flowing. I didn't really want to do that. I just wanted to write 11 poems. How many songs are on the album? 10, 11? I don't know. I wanted to write individual poems that would belong to a concept that together would create one whole piece. That was my goal.

I wasn't under the pressure of telling a story with all the details and excitement and an arc of suspense and who would be the murderer, you know? I didn't really worry about those things. Actually, it was pretty easy and it all felt very, very natural.

WHERE DO I BELONG?

Luxi: The press release mentioned that there's no "end of the world" theme in the lyrics of this album, but more of a Tim Burton-esque eeriness instead. When you write stories for your lyrics, do you try to find some kind of escape from this current, often cruel, world?

Tobias: It is definitely fantasy based. Of course, it's got something to do with escapism. Music for me is escapism. I escape but at the same time, everything is rooted in reality. The songs that I wrote are in a different world, a different environment in a Victorian setting, grotesque, sinister, fantastic but at the same time, they are rooted in reality. I don't know if self-therapy is the right word, but I try to put my feelings and my emotions in those songs and things that I really perceive.

A lot of the album's ideas are in the subtitle, Narratives of a Misplaced Entity. It's about a creature that is thrown into a world or created into a world that it doesn't feel connected to. It can't seem to find a space or place for itself and therefore it doesn't feel at peace in this bold, beautiful and bright, colorful reality. It escapes into the darkness, into its own world, into its man cave, so to say. Sort of into a parallel world and into the darkness so to speak. It turns to the dark in order to hopefully find a gate through imagination, a gate in the darkness to escape its miserable situation.

Those 10 or 11 songs, I still don't know how many are on the album actually, I forgot it, haha! But anyway, those songs are different depictions of the world and experience and perception and encounters with other characters of that main creature. There's a lot of myself in that, just in a different language. Just in a different way of speaking, in a different setting. You have a little distance to what you write. I used the Victorian eerie, foggy London streets of the late 19th century setting as I was inspired by writers like Arthur Machen or Algernon Blackwood, also a little bit by Edgar Allan Poe. These kinds of writers inspired the lyrics but the core of what is in the lyrics is basically just me talking about my emotions and my feelings and what I perceived as a kid growing up. I always felt different. I could relate and that's why the story is maybe just a vehicle for letting me write about my experience.

Luxi: So you wanted to approach the lyrics in a dark, gothic and romantic way?

Tobias: Yes. I wanted to create an imaginative world because I didn't want to write something just depressing. I wanted to write something colorful and eerie and dark and grotesque. I love Tim Burton. I love Corpse Bride and stuff like that. I think that is reflected in my work.

ABOUT OBSTACLES OR CHALLENGES

Luxi: Were there any obstacles when you were working on the album? Did you lose inspiration at any point?

Tobias: Not really. Of course, there are always challenges. Be it only when you write a passage that doesn't turn out the way it was meant to be, and you have to find ways to change it and make it work. "Obstacles" sound too negative. It's all challenges. If you don't face challenges, you will never develop. You have to see it what it is in a very playful way. See it as, "that doesn't work like that. What can we do to make it work?" Then you try out things, trial and error, and you do different things that can be real simple stuff.

For example, you write a melody in your head and when you listen to it, you don't have the feeling that you thought you would have. When you imagine the melody and you say, "theoretically that's good, but it doesn't really do anything to me. What do we have to change to make it work?" Of course, it's also a challenge when you get Bruce Dickinson to sing and he doesn't do it. That's a challenge too. There's nothing you can do about it. If Rod Smallwood says, "Bruce Dickinson is not available", I won't postpone the album or end the project. I say, "okay, I'll sing these passages myself." For example, I wanted to have Meat Loaf sing on the last record, but unfortunately it didn't work out.

Yes, obstacle ... obstacle sounds too negative.

Luxi: I agree, "challenge" is the correct word to use here.

Tobias: A challenge, yes.

HAVING THE FREEDOM TO DO THINGS WITHOUT PRESSURE

Luxi: I read that you said you had no deadline or contract when you started building this opus. Do you think it's been a positive thing regarding the creative process with no one breathing down your neck all the time?

Tobias: Absolutely. That's the biggest gift you can have because after Ghostlights, I realized that like every musician, I have to make sure I don't become a cog on a wheel in a big machine. I have to make sure I don't become a tool of the industry's expectations, not only the record label, but fans, everything. After a while when you've done so many things, you realize there's not much room left to say, "I need a break", because people will say, "you should do a new album. Now, it's time for a new Avantasia album. Now, it's time for a new Edguy album. You've got to do a tour, you're going to play here, you've got to play there".

After the Ghostlights tour, I said to myself, "no, no, no.... You have to make sure you stay the pilot of your own ship, which is what your life and your career is, and nobody else can say anything about it. No record label, not even bandmates, not even fans, nobody, you decide". I enjoyed that I didn't have a deadline. I had no contract for Avantasia, no contract for Edguy, no deadline. I said, "okay, this means I'm free now. I'm not going to do anything anytime soon". So, I built a studio at home to be more independent. It's not exactly a good idea if you want to work less because you build a studio and all of a sudden you have all these possibilities and you're crazy anyway.

Luxi: Like wanting to play with your new "toys", kind of thing.

Tobias: Yes. All of a sudden, you have all the freedom in the world to relax and you have a studio in your basement and you say, "oh there a new tube compressor. It's on eBay. Yes. Okay. I'm going to get it. Oh, there's an old Siemens microphone amplifier. It's from the '50s. It's a tube prism. Yes. I'm going to buy it." All of a sudden, I was collecting gear and Sascha said, "you are crazy." I bought more. I can record an orchestra now. I have so much gear. I built that studio and have all this vintage equipment. Of course, I used it and wanted to have a break and all of a sudden I found I had more and more ideas.

At some point, I said, "Okay ... it's not my fault, but I think I've got a new record done". It was weird and we started to record everything and then we started to get guest singers. I said, "Okay. Now, what a funny coincidence it is to have a record in the works which is pretty good and there's no stress right now so why not sign a record deal and release it and eventually get a production budget for it?" This is what happened and all of a sudden it got bigger and bigger and bigger.

And here I am, not feeling like a part of the machine. But the new album is ready and now I'm doing like 500 interviews because of it.

[*laughter*]

Luxi: Did Nuclear Blast approach you about this new recording contract or did it happen vice versa and it was actually you who approached them first?

Tobias: I had an attorney. I told him that I was working on a record and coincidentally, I was out of contract and what could we do about it? He spread the word and then everybody—all the record labels, major labels, independent labels, everybody—came down the line. I knew what Nuclear Blast had done for me in the past and that they did a good job and they are not exactly paying with peanuts.

I said, "okay, never mess with a working system. I don't have to explain everything to them". I said, "Okay, we're going to go with Nuclear Blast again". It's a good working relationship. They are a good company. They respect the artists like an independent label because that's what they are on paper. But they have the power and the system worldwide like a major label. The advantages when you're on Nuclear Blast is you have all the benefits that a major label has and you will be granted a worldwide release. When a major label, like Sony Music Germany, signs you, it doesn't necessarily mean that you will be released in the USA because they will not care about whatever number of records that you can sell there because the US edition of Sony Music will not necessarily be interested in it. Down the line, long story short; I am still stuck with Nuclear Blast.

CHOOSING GUEST VOCALISTS FOR MOONGLOW

Luxi: How did you choose all the guest vocalists for this album?

Tobias: Well, some of them I wanted because they have always been in my thoughts, or have already been a part of Avantasia. I wanted to have Michael Kiske, for example. He was an obvious choice. However, it wasn't obvious it would work because he's so busy with Helloween but happily, it did work out. We are friends and he said, "Yes, I'm going to squeeze it in somehow". With Hansi, I've always wanted to work with him. I had worked with him on an Edguy record, but I wanted to have him on an Avantasia album as well. Same with Mille Petrozza. I needed an aggressive voice for that passage and I had talked to Mille about it for a very long time and he said, "Yes, just ask me. I will do something for Avantasia." It never really fit before, but this passage was perfect for him.

Then others like Jørn Lande, Bob Catley, Eric Martin and Ronnie Atkins already belonged to the Avantasia family and they will join me on tour. It was obvious I would ask them because they are in my songwriting DNA. They stimulate my creativity; writing for Ronnie or for Bob, it's just very inspiring. I've been doing this for six or seven albums now. It's just very inspiring. With Geoff Tate, after what he had done on the last record and onstage when we were doing those two shows in 2017, or three shows we did with Geoff. I talked to him and I said, "Geoff, I would like to be in a studio with you and work with you, really".

He said, "Yes, sure. Old-school way of working. Let's do it. I'm open to it". That was so inspiring and so great. He's such a nice guy. He will join the tour, the whole world tour. Man, Geoff Tate, he did Operation: Mindcrime when I was 10 or 11 years old. That record is mind-blowing. He's inspired tens of thousands of theatrical Metal and Rock vocalists and he is on my new album and joining me on tour. He's such a great guy and a wine lover and funny. I really had to have them on the album.

With Candice, it was really funny. I didn't know it was Candice who had to sing that song, I just had a voice in my mind and I had to find out who it would be by going through the female vocalist in my record collection. I had to find out that it was Candice whose voice I want to have on the record. I had that song. It sounded a little bit like Mike Oldfield. I needed a voice that could sing a very very complicated melody. It's very difficult to sing the chorus of "Moonglow", I needed it to be very pure and innocent voice. I was like, "who could it be? Who could it be? No, not an opera singer". No, and all of a sudden it has to be Candice Night. "Let's ask her", and she listened to the song. "Oh, it's a great track. We want to do it". She said, "I want to do it." I don't know if they wanted to do it, maybe Richie and her wanted to do it.

Luxi: The first single off this album will be a very epic song, "The Raven Child", which is over eleven minutes in length, in which both Hansi Kürsch and Jørn Lande did their guest vocal appearances. This song is actually one of my favourite songs off the whole record because it sounds so powerful, epic and emotional with a good old-school Heavy Rock vibe running through the entire song. How did you choose Hansi and Jørn as the guest vocalists and was it obvious that these were the guys that fit this particular song in question?

Tobias: I don't know if it was obvious from the beginning. However, with Jørn, I knew relatively quickly that he had to sing that song. With Hansi, I was trying to find somebody who could to a folky vocal rendition of those passages. Something Celtic or world music like and it would have been the silent passages of the song that Hansi was singing. I first thought it should be a female voice but then I thought that would be too obvious; the ladies singing along with a Celtic harp and I thought that would be too obvious. It should be a man, but who could transport that feeling, that Celtic bard feeling so to speak. I thought Hansi. We've been talking about him joining Avantasia before, so I said, "I'm going to ask Hansi." I said, "Hansi, I know we've been talking about this before but would you be interested?" I always write these kinds of things because it's easier for him if it doesn't fit his schedule. It's easier for people to write back, "it's pretty difficult", than having him on the phone saying, "well, yes, maybe it's possible". Then we talked on the phone. He said, "Yes, sure. I'm going to do it. Oh, that's great." And he listened to the song and said, "it's a cool song". He also like the other song that he did, he's a great guy. Have you talked to him?

Luxi: Unfortunately not yet. No.

Tobias: He's a very nice person. Very down-to-earth, normal and a great Celtic bard.

Luxi: Nice. The plan is to release the album's second single in January 2019 and it's the title track of the album, "Moonglow", featuring Candice Night, who is Richie Blackmore's wife. The title track is actually pretty light and brings a lot of contrast to the album's content, I think. As there's overall a lot of dark vibe in the songs on this new Avantasia album, did you want to bring in some contrast by getting her to sing the song with her angelic, almost fragile voice?

Tobias: Actually, I didn't really think about contrast, the only conscious decision for a lightweight track was putting the "Maniac" song on the record. We had done it as a bonus track, just as a fun thing but we realized there's a lot of intense epic, heavy songs and very, very complicated and almost sophisticated stuff on the album. We said, "okay, let's make 'Maniac' a regular album track to kind of balance out." With "Moonglow", that wasn't a conscious decision. It felt natural. It's not heavy but Avantasia has always been about dynamics and we never really add limitations or boundaries to our music in order to be accepted by a certain group of people. We've always had all different sorts of elements and influences and I was never afraid of allowing that because this is my 18th album. I just realized that a few months ago, the 18th album that I've written in 22 years or something like that. Actually, that's 21 years or 20, I don't know. Anyway, in a very short time, 18 albums. You have to admit new influences and you have to be open-minded because otherwise, every album would sound exactly the same. We've always had these different colors in our albums.

Luxi: There's a song called "Alchemy" on this album which is probably my favourite due to its very infectious chorus plus there's this mysterious aura sort of circling around the song while it's on thanks to its gloomy beginning and some orchestration. How did you actually come up with that kind of song for this album?

Tobias: Well, I wrote it. It just came together very naturally. It was very, very dark but at the same time anthemic and I liked the chorus and the riff. That was one of the first things that I had. The part after the second chorus, that whole midsection, that kind of built up but the chorus was instantly there and the verse as well and I thought, "I need to have that Geoff Tate, and I need to have him sing the way he did on the Operation: Mindcrime/Rage for Order era albums."

When it came together, I had goosebumps. I was in the studio and Geoff was singing it in his typical Geoff way. I was the happiest person in the world because it has that Queensrÿche touch, that early Queensrÿche touch but at the same time it's got a sinister, almost occult atmosphere. It's got something very dark about it and it sounds a little bit like there's a Queensrÿche-like reminiscence but it is not Queensrÿche. That's something I like about it, but of course, it shows that my musical roots also contain classic Queensrÿche with Geoff.

DEAD OR ALIVE—THE SIXTH SENSE EFFECT

Luxi: Yes, true. Okay, unfortunately our time is almost up, so I have one last question fo you and then we are done. I was just wondering, what's the best or most hilarious gossip that you have ever heard about yourself during your whole career?

Tobias: Well, it's not so funny but once there was a rumor that I was dead. That wasn't so funny because people were asking about it and people were seriously concerned. Somebody on the Internet had said I died in a car accident or something like that. I was reading it in front of my computer and then all of a sudden there is this movie, is it The Sixth Sense or whatever it is—and all of a sudden you wonder like, "what if I'm dead and I haven't realized it?"

[*laughter*]

Luxi: Wow ... now that's a very badass story that you are telling me.

[*laughter*]

Tobias: Yes, of course! Then what do you do to find out. You undress and you walk in the pedestrian area and see if you get arrested. If you get arrested, you're pretty much not dead.

[*laughter*]

No, seriously, but I read it and I thought that's a sick story. I don't know, people come up with all different stories, gossip and shit. The Internet is a really bad place at times. Of course, you can respond pretty quick but the Internet is a very, very bad place for sick people because they can say pretty much anything about you and there's nothing you can do about it.

There's rumors all the time that you put out an album that somebody doesn't like, people will say, "Oh, he just did it for the money". You do weird things or there are weird things there in the Internet. You say something that is taken out of context, it will be inflated and there will be new things added to it. There's nothing you can do about it. There have been all sorts of rumors but that was by far the worst because people start to get concerned.

Luxi: Very true. People spread rumors because it's so easy to do in the Internet world. You get things out in a split of seconds—and then the damage is done.

Tobias: Yes. Some people think it's arrogance but musicians have to get rid of the idea that they should care what other people think. You have to get rid of it because when you're young you don't want to do harm to anyone, you want people to like you, you want to be nice to everybody. You want people to have the right impression of you. It's impossible. I've read all sorts of things, I've read that I'm gay which I don't care about. People can say anything they want, I don't really care about it. But being dead crossed line when people who love you read it. I don't mind people who love me read that I'm gay or I did the new album just for the money, that's a different story. I can explain to them it's not true and if they think it's right or it's correct, I don't care but being dead is something when people start to worry about you.

Luxi: Yeah, the Internet is kind of a brutal and not-so-friendly place from time to time. You can truly read some scary shit from there. "Hello everyone, I am actually dead...", holy shit...!!

[*laughter*]

Luxi: But anyways, thank you for your time, Tobias. It is as a pleasure to meet you face to face and talk to you.

Tobias: Thank you very much.

Luxi: I wish you all the best with the upcoming album, tour and stuff. I would have wanted to talk about the tour too but my time is up, so...

Tobias: Thank you very much. It's a pleasure.

Other information about Avantasia on this site
Review: The Metal Opera
Review: The Metal Opera Pt. II
Review: The Scarecrow
Review: Lost in Space (Part 1)
Review: Lost in Space (Part 2)
Review: The Metal Opera
Review: The Metal Opera Pt. II
Review: The Scarecrow
Review: The Wicked Symphony
Review: Angel of Babylon
Review: The Wicked Symphony
Review: The Wicked Symphony
Review: The Flying Opera
Review: Ghostlights
Review: Moonglow




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