“From a fan’s point of view, I’d be happy to see one of my favourite bands doing a completely different setlist because I know all their songs. If I go to a JUDAS PRIEST show, rather than hearing ‘Living After Midnight’ I’d rather hear stuff like ‘Dreamer Deceiver’. That’s much more interesting even for a diehard fan that knows all the songs in a band’s catalogue.”
And there you have the motivation behind GAMMA RAY’s new outing Skeletons & Majesties Live courtesy of frontman/founder Kai Hansen. Call it a case of the band challenging themselves and the fans by daring to be different, building a tour setlist in 2011 that reached all the way back to their 1990 debut Heading For Tomorrow and dusted off some of their more obscure tracks for the stage.
“It was really cool,” Hansen says. “And the great part of it was seeing that it actually works, that those songs aren’t weaker than the ones we play all the time. They just don’t get the attention they deserve. There are always the album favourites and the ‘real’ great songs, but that doesn’t mean the other songs are shit. When you do festivals and tours, sure, you include your ‘Best Of’ songs to make most of the people happy, but it was a lot of fun for us to do things this way.”
“That was especially at the rehearsals, when we were saying ‘Do we really have to practice ‘Send Me A Sign’ again?’ We’ve been playing that song for a long time and it’s quite simple, so there was no real need to go over it again. The songs that we hadn’t played in such a long time – or never – there was a totally different motivation to rehearsing them and improving ourselves.”
It was no secret the band was heading out to flog their so-called “rare” material when the tour was announced, and according to Hansen the number of people in the door on any given night was more or less the same as when Gamma Ray does an expectation-loaded show. Definitely a good thing considering the band committed themselves to a DVD shoot as preparations were being made.
“The tour was planned first, and then the suggestion came up to do a DVD since it’s been quite a while since the last one (Hell Yeah! The Awesome Foursome from 2008) and we were doing completely different songs. It was a perfect opportunity. We thought about doing a whole acoustic set but we decided it would be too much, especially for this band considering the music we play. It was better than we just changed things up for a song or two in the middle of the set.”
Skeletons & Majesties Live is also the final recorded work by drummer Daniel Zimmermann as a member of Gamma Ray, who boasted 15 years behind the kit.
“Daniel told us on the tour before this one that he was going to be leaving the band,” says Hansen, adding that it was an amicable split. “He wanted a change because he was sick of having to travel to Hamburg; it was a long distance for him to travel for a few rehearsals and stuff. He was tired of airports and touring around the world, and he just wanted a change in his life that was more home-based.”
Zimmermann has since been replaced by one Michael Ehré and work has begun on Gamma Ray’s next record.
“We haven’t had a lot of time to rehearse yet, but the few things we’ve done were very productive,” Hansen reveals. “We managed to put three songs together in a short time. Michael is a great drummer and he has some great ideas. He writes all the songs and plays rhythm guitar for LOVE MIGHT KILL, and it’s very different from what we do, but it’s great stuff. I think he’ll grow into Gamma Ray very quickly.”
What the next album will sound like is anybody’s guess at this point, with Hansen just as much in the dark as the rest of us. Since 2005 and the Majestic album Gamma Ray have run the gamut from anthem-based bombast to trademark speed metal to hard rock nuances.
“I don’t know. It’s still pretty early to say, but the stuff I’ve come up with is more in the direction of ‘80s speed metal because I’ve lived out my hard rock side with Unisonic over the last year. You never know how things will turn out but so far it’s ‘80s dominated metal.”
Back in September word came down that Gamma Ray had signed on for the Hellish Rock Tour II with his old band, HELLOWEEN. It’s an experience that bears repeating, says Hansen, because the first run in 2007/2008 was a huge hit amongst the fans.
“We only thought twice about it because financially I think we’d do better with our own tour,” he admits. “Maybe it’s not the best choice economically, but on the other hand going out with Helloween gives us a bigger buzz. It offers the chance to play different venues and I think that’s good for us.”
There are veteran fans that will argue Gamma Ray should be headlining in stead of Helloween this time out, that Hansen and Co. shouldn’t be playing second fiddle to the band he co-founded almost 30 years ago.
“The Helloween name is just bigger and it’s got a longer history, so fair enough. Sure, there are people coming up to us saying that Gamma Ray should headline, and who can argue with that? (Laughs) Seriously though, I’m fine with it, and it takes away the burden of being a headliner. We can go and play our 75 minutes and have a ball, then go off stage and get wasted while the other guys have to fight for every inch because the fans get tired eventually.”
Obviously, there’s no bad blood lingering about if Hansen has agreed to do the go ‘round once again…
“Absolutely. Everything that was an issue in the past has been settled and we're all at peace. There's no bad blood anymore.”
Leaving plenty of room for a rumour that began circulating shortly after Hellish Rock II was announced, that a Helloween album featuring original members Michael Weikath (guitars), Markus Grosskopf (bass), Michael Kiske (vocals) and Hansen was in the planning stages. Not so according to Hansen.
“It's wishful thinking, and of course it might be in everybody's mind wondering what it would sound like now. There's no guarantee that that kind of magic would come back again if we did it. It might work, I don't know. It's all speculation. I won't say it won't happen but I won't say it will happen, either. And definitely, Michael would have to settle some issues before that would happen at all. Let's see what the future holds.”