Defending The Crown: An Interview With Tobias Sammet

For nearly twenty years, Tobias Sammet has been the reigning mad genius of modern heavy metal. Between his main band Edguy, and the epic concept albums he's made with his Avantasia project, no one can match the quality and output he has mustered. From helping redefine modern power metal with “Theater Of Salvation”, to reigniting the concept album as a force in metal, to showing that hard rock and heavy metal can coexist within the same band, Tobi has done it all. Every decade has had important figures who have helped define what metal was in their day, and Tobi has been that for the past decade.

As Edguy unveils their new album, “Space Police – Defenders Of The Crown”, Tobi took the time to answer a few questions on the nature of being a songwriter, his band's past and future, and a mutual musical hero.

I've heard the new album, and it's another really good Edguy album. What do you think sets "Space Police" apart from other Edguy albums?
That's hard to phrase. It's a new album. It represents the band right now. As always, we've given our best and wanted to record the album we would wanna hear as fans of this kind of music if we weren't in the band. I think that's pretty much the only attitude to approach art. Do what you really feel, what you love as the artist and as the listener, as your worst critic and your best fan. What I can say is that we did this album in a relatively short time span. Not because we had to, but because we chose to push ourselves into the situation where we'd have to be creative. It was a challenge and we were ready to change that way of working if we felt things would sound enforced or artificial. But it turned out to be a great way of working. I locked myself away and wrote, and during daytime, we'd meet in the rehearsal room to rehearse. Within two months the album writing was completed. When you work that way and so fast, you don't waste time to second guess or fix things that don't need to be fixed. It's based on instinct and intuition, and if you're playing music for the right reasons, intuition is the best guide to creativity.
My favorite Edguy album is "Tinnitus Sanctus", which had more of a mixed reception when it came out. Did the criticism you got for that album effect anything about the music you've made since?
Not really. I mean, you should never listen to what anyone else says. That may sound cocky, but let's face it: it's honest. And honesty shows how much you respect your fans. You don't wanna lie to fans and say things you don't really mean just so they dig them. You have to swallow criticism but never let it take away your honesty, authenticity, or integrity as an artist. I've been criticized from the release of the second album on. Some love what you do, some hate what you do. It hurts to hear criticism, but if you take a 180 degree turn to please your haters, other people will become your critics. My understanding of Rock and Roll and Heavy Metal and art in general has always been: Don't give a fuck and plough your way, upright and honest!

I can hear some of the "Tinnitus Sanctus" sound in this album. Do you think it's a natural progression for a band like Edguy to get heavier with time, or did you intentionally steer the band in that direction?
I didn't steer the band in a certain direction. But the first song written was "Sabre & Torch," which I had demo-ed with our producer Sascha Paeth - who's also my AVANTASIA side kick - and then we played it to the band and they liked it. It was the heaviest stuff we'd done in a long time, maybe the heaviest ever. I have the feeling that this was subconsciously in the back of my head when writing future material. It was there and it set an invisible, subconscious guideline, I think.
When you're writing music, how do put songs together? Do the songs turn out differently depending on whether they started with keyboard, guitar, or vocal lines?
Not really. The instrument is just a tool to entice a great melody or harmony or riff out of your brain. It's a vehicle. I have a very melody-oriented and harmony-oriented way of writing. A good chorus or harmony is what comes first; it should be the center of a song, in my opinion. But a good riff or a good keyboard intro is very important, too. I have written pretty much everything on keyboards, but as I play a stringed instrument as well, I know what a guitar riff sounds like on a guitar and what can be played and what not, so I prefer to write on a keyboard or piano, ‘cause that's the instrument I feel closest to. It starts with a good melody, or a good hook or riff, and then the song continues and completes itself literally. Sometimes a glass of red wine is beneficial as well, ha!
You've been amazingly prolific throughout your career, both with Edguy and Avantasia. Why do you think you've been able to keep up that pace, when the average band these days only puts out an album every two or three years?
Well, I don't see it as a sport. This is not the Olympics and I think every band should take the time they need to come up with what they think is the greatest piece of music since the first Van Halen album. Sometimes I think this work ethic would be beneficial for the music scene. Imagine if there'd only be albums that are actually worth being released quality-wise? I always try to put quality first; the schedule is completely secondary. The reason my pace has been quite fast is quite simple: I love what I do. I don't do it because I have to. In fact, I could afford taking a few years off. It's not greed of money that drives me to set such a pace, it's just the love for what I do, the urge to let out my creativity. So far it's been a fast pace, but I would slow down the minute I would feel my quality was suffering.
Do you worry that being so prolific might shorten your career? That you might run out of songs?
I don't think that way. That's a weird thought. What if you'd have a lot of songs left when you run out of a career?! Would be even more silly, wouldn't it?!
You've written such a large number of great songs. Do you think that metal musicians in general, and you in particular, don't get enough credit for being a songwriter as people who work in more 'respected' genres?
Yes, I think so. In the big scope, definitely. I just saw a TV show here in Germany where a pop artist proudly told about how he apparently sold half a million records in Austria, Germany, and Switzerland and that on his new albums, there are lyrics he'd written himself. A mainstream artist. I was scratching my head and thought: Wow, we sold many times more, toured 40 countries and have written everything ourselves since Day One. But on the other hand, our fans know that and they are loyal and they buy our records and see our shows and support us even though we don't get played on commercial radio. I am happy with who I am and I am very thankful to have those great fans around the planet. It's like a secret society: Lovely, smart and loyal!
When you're writing for Edguy, do you ever write something that you can envision someone else singing, like in Avantasia? If you do, do you consciously try to change your voice to fit that vision?
It doesn't happen consciously prior to writing, but it happens that I sometimes think: "Wow that would be a great passage for Glenn Hughes,” as it happened in the last song of the new album, "The Eternal Wayfarer." There's this one passage right before the final chorus where I thought, “This reminds me of Glenn Hughes.” I have no idea why. Also in “Baba Yaga,” there are passages in which I thought of Ozzy Osbourne. You know, this is not because I am a copy cat; this is more because I have remained a fan myself. I LOVE Glenn Hughes and I love Ozzy and I love Bruce Dickinson, and you will always hear that. The good thing about my voice is that no matter how much I show my influence in certain passages, my voice is so distinctive that you can hear it's me anyway. As a young vocalist, I was really pissed off about that. I wasn't too happy with my voice, as it didn't sound like any of my idols. In the beginning, I tried hard to sound like Bruce Dickinson and Michael Kiske of HELLOWEEN, because I so desperately wanted to cover up my natural voice. It's like recording the way you spoke as a teenager - you think you sound really crappy, it's strange, and you can't stand it. I had to learn that it is not necessarily a negative aspect to sound like no one else. Today, I am happy with my voice. Our producer Sascha said that I must have one of the most unique voices in Metal. Nowadays I can accept that as a compliment, but even ten years ago, I hated that fact.
Edguy is known for not being deadly serious, but how do you know where to draw the line with the humorous aspects? Are you ever worried about going too far and affecting people's perception of the band?
We try to be tongue-in-cheek at times, but we try to let that never outshine our music. The best thing is not to think too much, and do what we feel in order to entertain ourselves. Everybody prefers a good laugh over a good cry, but we try to never become too goofy. It's all spontaneous and I think you don't have to really think too hard about it. I guess my heroes like Van Halen, Twisted Sister, The Who, Queen, AC/DC, Maiden, Ozzy or Alice Cooper all had a great sense of humor. They didn't take themselves too seriously but no one would argue they were seriously great artists and entertainers.
Have you reached a point where Edguy is a palate-cleanser from the huge concept albums you make with Avantasia?
No. I mean, the stuff I do with AVANTASIA is really special and feels like vacation because we hardly tour. Shows are quite big but tours are relatively short. We tour with a group of people in constellations that usually don't hit the stage together. It's all very special, to me as well. BUT, after such a huge undertaking, it feels like a great relief to just hit the road, plug in, and play. Entertain people. After the previous EDGUY tour, I was dying to do AVANTASIA, but after the AVANTASIA tour, a lot of pressure fell off my shoulders and I was looking forward to getting started with a new EDGUY cycle with my long-time friends. And honestly: EDGUY is the biggest internationally acclaimed Heavy Metal band to have emerged from Germany since the late ‘80s. We've headlined the biggest Metal festivals in the world, played arenas, and our last album was #3 in the German charts and appeared in the charts all over Europe. It would be quite insane to consider it a palate-cleanser.
When you head out on tour, how hard is it to balance old material with new songs, when there's such a difference between "Theater Of Salvation" and "Space Police"? It must be hard to please everyone.
It is impossible to please everyone, but personally I don't think there is such a huge difference. A song like “Land Of The Miracle” or “Vain Glory Opera” will really work amazingly right next to a song like "Space Police" or "Rock Of Cashel." They are not so different in terms of style. Yes, we've developed, like most other bands that have remained relevant. Look at Maiden: “Fear Of The Dark” works really well next to “Run To The Hills” and there's ten years between those songs. We will try to find a good balance, play all the band classics, and then - of course – play four or five new tracks. And I know the fans will want to hear the new tracks ‘cause they're so good.

Your albums have been taking on more and more of an 80s sound. What is it about that era of music that you find most appealing?
I've always been a child of the ‘80s. I think everyone in the band is. I am really a ‘70s and ‘80s guy, but the ‘80s were the years where I was old enough to experience what was going on around me musically but at the same time, it was my childhood, so that was a very formative era for us all. That's when we bought our first vinyl albums; that's when we were dying to see what Eddie would look like on the next Maiden album cover. Of course, I think the basics for the music we play were laid in the ‘60s and even more so the ‘70s; that's why I love a lot of ‘70s music like AC/DC, Kiss, Purple, Rainbow, Zeppelin, Queen, and Van Halen. But I have a lot more memories of the ‘80s. And the ‘90s? They were Grunge! No good. To me music was entertainment. All of the sudden someone had a huge hit singing "Here we are now, entertain us!" WHAT? Someone must have gotten something wrong. It was the people ON stage who were supposed to be entertaining...
You have some obvious influences, but I want to ask about a less obvious one. There are moments throughout your career, especially "The Story Ain't Over", that remind me so much of Jim Steinman's work with Meat Loaf. Is he someone who has influenced your writing?
Jim Steinman is a really huge influence. I love the old Meat Loaf stuff, Bat Out Of Hell… I also love some of the Steinman solo stuff. You know, it's not only in "The Story Ain't Over." "The Great Mystery" – the last song on the last AVANTASIA album - is pretty much a ten minute tribute to Jim Steinman's work. Huge influence!
Are there any Edguy songs that you're surprised never became fan favorites?
Oh yes, it's devastating to learn, but you have to accept it. On the last tour we played a lot of stuff of "Age Of The Joker," an amazing album in my opinion, it also sold really good. But when we played certain songs off that album, I had the feeling the reactions were like: "Uhm, yeah, alright… play ‘Vain Glory Opera’!" No offense, I appreciate honesty, but that was a bit strange. I love songs like “Fire On The Downline” and “Behind The Gates To Midnight World.”
Conversely, are there any songs that surprised you by becoming fan favorites?
It felt so great to learn how much people enjoyed stuff like “Fucking With Fire” or “Lavatory Love Machine.” You know, back when we wrote those songs, we weren't sure people were gonna accept those light-hearted, straight-forward Rock songs. But “Lavatory” is a band classic. Throughout the years, hundreds of thousands of Power Metal fans have sung along and partied along to it without really realizing that those were cock rock songs, a musical genre that some of them really, truly hated. I think we broke down barriers with those songs.
What have your learned about the process of singing and making albums from all the legendary singers who have been on your Avantasia records?
I have become more relaxed about my own voice. It sounds cheesy, but it really helped me to accept my own voice when I learned how much respect those high class singers had for me as a vocalist from a technical point of view. Apart from that, I learned a lot about different techniques and different approaches. I have always been a blues fan but before I met Jorn Lande for the first time, I did not really consider letting out my blues roots on a Heavy Metal song. Jorn just did it; it was natural to him and it encouraged me to break down those barriers in my head as well and just do it. Or Eric Martin's soul. I mean, this man is SOUL MUSIC incarnate. I am so thankful to be able to sing with such a vocalist!
Do you have any plans for where Edguy's music could go in the future, or do you let inspiration take you wherever the music wants to go?
We're free-styling. Anything is possible, but I guess we'll be a Heavy Metal band allowing in any kind of influence to keep it exciting for ourselves and making sure that narrow-minded people stay out of the concert venue, ha ha!
Having established two successful bands, and having shared albums and the stage with so many of your heroes, is there anything left that you haven't been able to accomplish yet?
I wanna play a sold out arena in London. One day, I wanna play Madison Square Garden and I wanna record a duet with Steven Tyler, Paul Stanley, and Bruce Dickinson. Well, actually that would be a quartet, but we can make it three duets...

Chris C

Music Reviewer

Chris is a professional intellectual. He graciously shares his deep thoughts on the world of music with the world. You're welcome.

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