Having just finished their massive 2-year-long world tour, German progressive power metal outfit Blind Guardian announced a live album, titled Live from Beyond the Spheres. The 3CD/4LP set bookends the world tour with an assortment of songs recorded at different shows from around the world. Rhythm guitarist Marcus Siepen lent us his time via Skype to talk about it.
Guten Morgen! Is this Marcus Siepen, rhythm guitarist for Blind Guardian?
Guten Morgen! Yes, right on all three!
I understand you just finished a North American tour last autumn and are now gearing up to tour Europe?
Actually, we finished the whole world tour by the end of last year. We started it at the release of our new album [Beyond the Red Mirror] in April 2015. It went on until December; we played a few shows. We’re about to do some festival shows all over Europe. It’s not really part of the tour we just finished. It’s just some dates, almost a vacation for us, [laughs]!
Yeah it’s just something like eleven shows at festivals and such – very easy going for us this summer. I mean, we’ve been on the road for almost 2 years now and at some point we have to stay home and work on new songs because otherwise there won’t be a new Blind Guardian album [laughs]. So we just finished the touring cycle and our main focus now is on writing and recording new material so at some point we can put out a new album. And then we’ll go out on the road again…
Right! The North American tour was a little different, though. It was a conceptual thing themed around Imaginations from the Other Side (my personal favorite). Will any of these elements be on this European tour?
Yes, I have to say we played two American legs. The first was in fall 2015 and we did 6-8 months with Grave Digger. Then we went back again with Grave Digger in 2016 – a year later we came back to the US. So coming back with the same support band, hitting some of the same cities, we had to come up with something different. Since it was kind of the anniversary of Imaginations and it fit into the theme of Beyond the Red Mirror, we had this idea of doing Imaginations completely and putting new stuff on top of that as well, of course. It was fun to do that, I have to say! And the reaction! I suddenly got messages from everywhere that, “Oh you need to come here and do the same thing!” and I said, “Okay, we’ll see,” [laughter]!
After that we did a few shows at the end of the year in Europe – brought that over to Europe. We’ll still do that at some of the new shows. Not all of them. The funny thing is, I felt a bit skeptical at the beginning. I prefer not to do these sorts of things because when I go to see one of my favorite bands, I don’t want to know in advance what’s going to happen. Announcing that you’ll do a whole album of course takes a bit away from that element of surprise. But I have to say, playing those songs live was a lot of fun, because the album has such an incredible flow to it. If you play just from agency, the songs work perfectly together in a live setting. It was really fun. I’m looking forward to doing it again for those shows. It’s been about 6 months since we’ve played live and I’m starting to get hungry for that again.
On the official site, you guys have dropped some hints about some kind of orchestral album planned to be released in 2018. Can you please elaborate on what that is, exactly?
Yes I can! That’s actually something we’ve been working on for the last, say 20 years, maybe longer; it’s an eternal sort of project for us. It’s like typical Blind Guardian music but played by an orchestra, so you won’t hear any guitars, any drums. It’ll be an orchestra playing our music. It’s just Hansi [Kürsch] singing over it. It’ll sound very different, of course but it will still be Blind Guardian, because it IS still Blind Guardian’s music!
We’ve been trying to finish it in the last few years and the only thing that’s still missing is some vocal recordings from Hansi. The original idea was that we would use some of the breaks that we had during the tour for him to record those final vocals. The problem is that touring is very demanding for his voice, so he was not in shape to do album recordings in between shows because he needed those breaks to heal his voice for the next shows. So now instead of working on the next album, he’s using this time to work on those vocals for that orchestral thing so we can finish it, mix it, master it, and then put it out. Which will hopefully come out sometime next year.
And these are new songs? Or are they new versions of old songs?
No, no, it’s all new music! No re-arrangements, it’s all new music played by an orchestra but composed by Blind Guardian.
So it’s not one of those kitschy sort of re-workings?
No, no, I’m pretty sure anyone who likes Blind Guardian will most likely be blown away by it. It sounds amazing! It’s very different than you might expect. It’s hard to describe in what way – you’ll just have to wait and hear for yourself.
Wow, you’ve piqued my interest!
Good, then it’s worth it [laughs]!
Now, Live Beyond the Spheres seems to be more or less the same set you played here in Helsinki, back in 2015.
Yes, it’s based around the Beyond the Red Mirror tour and the set is made to represent what we did on that tour. It has a bit of everything. We played pretty long sets on that tour. I think the average set length was like 2 hours 20 minutes. We had a lot of material to work with. We were insane enough to record pretty much every show from that tour. In the end we focused on that first European leg because, we felt, that was technically the best preserved from the recordings. We’re talking about some forty shows of 2½ hours to go through, so… it was a lot!
As I said, it’s composed of different shows. There are some quite long songs on the new album and we couldn’t of course play all of those in a single night. But it gives you a good overview of what the tour was like.
So these are shows from all over? You recorded the Helsinki show, so are any songs from Helsinki?
To be honest, I couldn’t tell you from the top of my head. I know a few shows that made it, but I just don’t remember. At some point I just started to ignore where the show was from. When you come back from a tour, there are some shows that stick to your mind because, like Helsinki, I liked it. My wife was there, we had a good time, and that’s what makes it great. But then somebody else would say, “Oh, but London was great!” or, “Warsaw, was great!” You just have to ignore where the show was and just listen to the recording. At some point I lost the overview; I can’t remember what cities are on there. I think Helsinki might be… You’ll have to see for yourself when it comes out. Listen closely to try if you can hear yourself singing [laughs]!
Alright, what about the artwork? On the last few you’ve had some fantastic artwork by Felipe Machado Franco. Is he back for this new live compilation?
No it’s a different one. This one is by Andrea Christen. She’s done quite a lot of merchandise artwork for us over the years. We wanted to give her a chance to do an album. It has a bit more of an old-school approach when compared to the history of Blind Guardian covers. I’m not saying anything bad at all about the covers done by Felipe, because I love them! We just wanted to try something different for this one. I like it a lot. We don’t know yet about the future – we’ll have to see.
With Felipe you had the whole booklet covered in gorgeous pieces. How about this one?
Well, with live albums you wanna have the booklet filled with more things like pictures from the shows. It’ll look very nice but it’s not comparable to, say, the last few. When I listen to a live album, I want to see pictures from the tour, of the band performing, or just doing whatever on the bus and such.
What about the name, Beyond the Spheres? Is that a reference to something? What are the ‘spheres’?
You know, everybody can make their own interpretations. To me the spheres are the different cities, the different places that we played, and how we’re kind of now beyond that. Now we can look back and listen… It’s always a challenge to come up with these names for live albums. I remember Live from 2003. It was a nightmare! We had like 10 billion names and we didn’t like any of them. So in the end, Andre, Hansi, and me, we just sent a letter to the central thing, “Why not just call it ‘Live‘ and be done with it?” [laughs]
I always found that funny! You had live albums like Imaginations Through the Looking Glass and then one was just Live.
Yeah, ’cause that’s what it is, it’s Blind Guardian live! Why not frame it like that, you know? Sometimes you gotta change things up.
Indeed. So the last album was Beyond the Red Mirror, which is a sequel to Imaginations from the Other Side. My question is: is that story over? You think there’s more to tell there?
I have to say, Hansi did say he didn’t completely finish that story. There was never a plan, really, to continue the story from Imaginations. While we were working on The Red Mirror, we did go back and think we had an unfinished story from Imaginations… I have no idea, might be that there is more. All I know is that this next album will not be continuing from that. Maybe we’ll get back to it at some point. Maybe in another 20 years.
I’m guessing you already have some ideas, some outlines for the next album?
We are, we have some two songs done. Right now we’re finishing up the live thing and the orchestral album, so we really don’t know yet what the rest will sound like. Those two songs haven’t been recorded yet, so it could still all change. The only thing I can tell you is it’ll sound like Blind Guardian, because it’s gonna be Blind Guardian. We also won’t repeat ourselves; it will not sound like another Beyond the Red Mirror. We always wanna do something new. Whatever it’s going to be, I can’t tell you, not yet.
As rhythm guitarist what is your role in the studio? How do you guys work?
Well, I play rhythm guitar, [laughter]! My job really is to lay down this big-sounding foundation for the band, this big wall of sound, so Andre can do his melodic guitars and Hansi can do his vocals. Then the sum of all that is Blind Guardian.
Right, but is it more like that you just play Andre and Hansi’s compositions? Or does the songwriter come up with more of an outline on top of which everyone can do their thing?
It’s different. Sometimes it’s a complete song that is done and other times you can influence that. Yes, they are the main songwriters, but they don’t always do everything. Everybody can have their own influence and if it doesn’t work then we just move on to the next song.
I’d imagine you’re a pretty well-oiled machine by now. If I’m not mistaken, with the exception of the rotating bass player, your line-up hasn’t actually changed at all.
Actually there was one change! Thomen [Stauch], the original drum player, left in 2004, I think. But that was the only line-up change.
Have you ever thought of officially instating a bass player? Or would that mess with your flow?
It would mess with quite a lot of things. We never really thought about this because Blind Guardian has, to us, always been a band with four members. You know, at the point when Hansi stopped playing the bass, which was at the end of the Imaginations tour. He always kept the option that he’d still pick up the bass – I don’t think he ever will, but he likes to keep it open. So we brought in guest bass players for the studio and the tours. There was never talk of making them official and permanent members because to us we were the core of the band and that just worked best for us. They’ve always come in and done a fantastic job. They’ve never expressed that they wanted to join, they always have other things, other projects going on, but they’re always there when we need them.
Makes sense. Going back to those early days: Battalions of Fear, Follow the Blind, and such. How would you say your music and the process of making it has evolved over the years?
Well, we obviously became better musicians, I hope [laughter]! The songwriting has gotten better, I think. I’m using the word ‘better’ but I really mean ‘more skilled.’ I’m not necessarily saying the playing and the songwriting in those days was bad. It’s what we wanted to do back then and it was perfectly fine – I don’t want to take anything away from that. But as I said, when we got ‘better’ we also tried different things that obviously ended up working, so we did that. We of course started out as a pure melodic speed metal band – that was the origin of the band – but then we tried different things, like acoustic things, orchestral things, more progressive stuff, and we liked it. But it’s not like we’ve abandoned that completely. Some of the newer stuff… like “Twilight of the Gods” is probably the fastest thing we’ve ever done. We just like to add new things. We don’t like repetition. It wouldn’t make sense for us to do an album that’s like Battalions of Fear again, because we already did that and we loved it.
Right. Those earlier albums aren’t on Spotify, by the way. Any idea as to why?
There’s copyright, licensing things. Record companies don’t always allow them for streaming. The good thing is though, they’re still available in record stores. So for those who don’t own them, there’s still a chance to buy one [laughs]!
Your music is very fantasy-based and mostly very uplifting and fun. There’s a lot of talk of magic, and such. Would you say that’s the band’s overall message? To bring a little magic into this world?
I don’t think I’d go so far to call it our ‘overall message,’ but to me music has always been magic! From the first time I picked up a guitar, when I was like 11 years old. From those records I picked up, those old Iron Maiden and Black Sabbath albums. Whenever I bought a new album I was just… gone. I’d be gone for weeks! I’d put a record on, an old LP, and just dive deep into the music, you know? That was pure magic for me.
Music should always stay magical. Unfortunately, to the kids today, I feel like it’s not the same thing it was for my generation. Nobody’s buying albums anymore, not like vinyls, those big album artworks, you know? Nowadays, if you’re lucky you’ll have a CD with the little booklet. Then there are people who are always streaming or illegally downloading and they don’t give a fuck about artwork. They just listen to an album, like three times, and then they move on to the next thing. I was reading this thing where people were talking about listening to music on Spotify and services like that. And somebody was saying that even his favorite albums, he’d never listen to them more than ten times. That really shocked me! My favorite albums I’d listen to over and over. I don’t think I’d be making the kind of music I am if it wasn’t for that. Somebody saying they’ve only heard their favorite album ten times… I’m sorry, but that’s pathetic. Either you don’t like that album or you don’t like music.
Yeah, when a new interesting thing comes out I’d listen to it ten times a week!
…A day! [laughter]
Alright, that’s probably all the time we have. We’ll hopefully see you guys in Helsinki again sometime?
Absolutely, because it’s a fun place to play!
That’s good to hear. Live Beyond the Spheres comes out on 3CD and 4LP on July 7th. I’ll be sure to listen to it more than ten times. But for now, Auf Wiedersehen!
Yes, Auf Wiedersehen!