I’ve always felt like an outsider. When I was young I never seemed to be able to find a mold to fit or a group to belong to. That is how I (ironically) aligned myself with the group that also never seemed to fit the mold and started my little heavy metal journey. While others were out enjoying non-awkward social interactions, I was sitting at home and playing fantasy video games while listening to a bunch of grown-ups singing about elves, dwarves and the realms beyond the imagination.
Yes, my first foray into what I would come to know is called power metal came through AVANTASIA and their seminal double album “The Metal Opera”. It was only later that I found out who this Tobias Sammet character is: the guy wearing leopard bell bottoms and making mid-air splits while singing about fornicating on a plane toilet in this other band called Edguy. Edguy? Not quite what I had imagined at first, I had soon come to realize that is only one side of the diverse musical spectrum Sammet was dwelling in.
It did not take long for me to start to appreciate how seamlessly Sammet was able to combine his love for bombastic power metal and 80’s flare. So when Avantasia came back from the dead with a series of albums that did just that, my appreciation for his musical genius only grew.
Honestly, it’s a wonder how I was even able to pronounce my name right as I shook his hand for the first time during his visit to Belgrade, Serbia. I’ve had the pleasure of visiting the set where he was shooting a video for the title track of Avantasia’s upcoming eight studio effort, “Moonglow”. This was not the first time I’ve done an interview with Tobias Sammet, but never had the honor of meeting him in person.
Even though he spent the entire day in front of the spotlights and cameras, Sammet was very happy to talk to me about the inspiration and the story of the upcoming album, his merry men in Avantasia, why he wasn’t able to sway Bruce Dickinson into making a guest appearance all these years and more.
Your new album titled “Moonglow” is scheduled to arrive on February 15th via Nuclear Blast Records. It marks a new chapter in the Avantasia story, both metaphorically and conceptually. Without spoiling too much, what can you tell me about the story the new album is going to start?
Tobias Sammet: It’s a conceptual album. Some people would call it a rock opera because it’s a better marketing phrase, but I’m not sure “rock opera” is the right expression. The subtitle of the album is “Narratives of the Misplaced Entity” and it’s eleven individual songs that in their entirety form the beautiful total of what “Moonglow” is.
It’s an album about an outsider, a creature that has been created and thrown into an environment, a reality that it can’t stand. The creature feels that there is no place for it in that beautiful, glossy, shiny reality of the bold and the beautiful. As a result of that, it escapes and seeks shelter in the darkness, hoping to find a gate out of its misery so to speak. The songs are individual pictures of the mental world of that creature or character.
I tried to find a vehicle that is strong and gives me the chance to put my thoughts and my personal feelings and emotions into individual lyrics. And yet at the same time, I wanted them to form a big world of its own together. That’s what I tried to do. And I think it’s a very coherent album and it has that huge, Victorian, big, old English language because that’s what inspires me.
I’m really inspired by the Victorian revival of the gothic novel, those writers of the late 19th and early 20th centuries like Arthur Machen, Algernon Blackwood, and William Somerset Maugham. Also others like E.T.A. Hoffman and Edgar Alan Poe. That’s the language and that’s the world that was inspired by those writers, the world that I wanted to create and put my lyrics into. So it feels like a story, but I didn’t approach it as if I wanted to write a Broadway musical.
I can already notice a lot of parallels between that and the “Scarecrow” trilogy: dealing with an outsider protagonist.
Tobi: Dealing with myself pretty much (laughs). Because, of course, there are certain topics that I’m circling around and I came back to that topic. It’s a different approach, because on “The Scarecrow” I still had a huge focus on an arc of suspense, so to speak.
It was still built like a story and sometimes the story and the idea of writing a story is a hindrance of doing something that leaves room for the individual poetic aspect and lyric. And I really wanted to write something creative that would give me the freedom to write individual poems.
But still, the topic is something that really matters to me. Sometimes it’s purely hedonistic when I do songs like “Love Tyger”, but in this case, it’s very, very emotional with very, very deep lyrics.
Well, I can confidently say that every metalhead can find themselves in those stories of outsiders.
Tobi: I know this thing has been flogged to death, the whole topic. But the thing is, when I was young I always felt like an outsider. I was never unhappy, but I always felt misunderstood because I had a different idea.
I found my escape in music and I found something that I could do and be at peace with myself. And after you’ve done two albums, you are an outsider even in the world of rock and metal. Because as soon as you do something that is slightly different from what you’ve done first, people say “Oh, he sold out. That is not the music he is supposed to do”.
You get so caught up in expectations and an individual cannot be happy if you are just always living up to expectations. And I’ve always felt like an outsider, but not an unhappy one I have to say. But it wasn’t always easy.
The title of the album is simple, yet catchy and memorable. What inspired it?
Tobi: The glow of the moon (laughs).
“Moonglow” is a beautiful title. I like pictures of moonlit landscapes. I know that sounds a bit weird, but it’s true. I like moonlight. I like eerie dark worlds and I think “Moonglow” to me sounded so poetic. All the pictures I have at home are replica art paintings of John Atkinson Grimshaw. Anyway, it’s a parallel world. The moonlight world. Of course, he escapes into the darkness and I took it as a metaphor for something different.
As far as music is concerned, on your radio show, you mentioned there are a lot of Mike Oldfield influences on the album. There’s also a versatile cast of vocalists including Mille Petrozza of Kreator and Candice Night of Blackmore’s Night. So what can the fans expect from the album, music-wise?
Tobi: It’s very diverse. It’s typical Avantasia and my best friend said it’s the best Avantasia album. And I don’t quote him here to promote the album… Well, of course, I do. But… Of course, I do (laughs).
But he doesn’t lie, he’s a very good person (laughs). It’s typical Avantasia and it’s a very strong album. And you cannot say if it’s the best or not the best because it’s not the Olympics. They are all great albums: I like “Ghostlights”, I like “The Scarecrow”, I really love “The Metal Operas” because they all have something unique.
I think it’s a typical album, just more diverse. And for the first time in my life, I was completely free. I came back from the “Ghostlights” tour and I didn’t have anything on my schedule. Not an Edguy album, not an Avantasia album – there were no contracts anymore. Not with Edguy or Avantasia. All we had was the Edguy anniversary. So there was no pressure.
After I completed the “Ghostlights” tour I realized that in the past 20 years I had done 17 albums and 10 world tours. And I had written those albums and sung those world tours, and organized and done all the interviews, which was about eight or nine thousand. It’s probably 500 interviews that you do for each album. And we’ve done live albums and EPs and all these kinds of things. And my strange TV stunt for the Eurovision Song Contest.
There’s been a lot of work and I’ve done a lot. And I felt that I was falling into a routine. And I did not want to fall into a routine because it’s the death of creativity. And I said “Ok, I will not do anything. I’m taking off now.” Of course, we did the Edguy anniversary album, the book and a little tour with Edguy as a favor to the fans and my bandmates. But then I said “Ok, I need a break. I’m done with all this”.
I don’t want to become a part of a treadmill. Because in the music business after a while nobody really understands what the artist really wants to do. People take everything for granted. “Ok, you do an album, you do a tour. Then you play Wacken. Ok, what then. You have a two-week break, then you do an album and you do a tour. And then… well, 2023 will you play Wacken with Edguy or Avantasia. Oh, no, 2024 you play with Avantasia, so 2023 is with Edguy.” And you realize you’ve become a part of expectations, and expectations make you a robot.
I built my own studio, which is not a very smart step if you don’t want to do anything. Because after the studio is built of course you’ll want to use it. But I built my studio and started working on music. I had so much time and no pressure that the album became so embellished and so diverse. And I was writing something, and putting it aside or sending it to Sascha (Paeth, guitarist & producer). And he’d say “that’s great. Why don’t we replace the guitars here and do it a bit different here”. And we had so much time that it became so diverse. And I felt really happy having so much freedom and no stress. And I think you can hear it on the album.
I don’t want to downgrade anything I’ve done before. Everything I’ve done I’ve done not because I was told to… Sometimes I was, that’s not true. But I could always say I was proud of it and I could live with it. I never delivered anything I wasn’t convinced of. But this time I had all the time to adjust it to my pace and not live up to people saying ‘we need a new album.’
I recently spoke to Devin Townsend about the same thing, when he split his band. The fans always romanticize the whole rock music thing, but sooner or later it becomes a nine to five thing, only from year to year. What you said, touring and album, touring and album…
Tobi: Yes, and you have to protect yourself from it. I started playing music because I wanted to dream things and to dream up albums and make them go on tours. Of course, when you’re young everything happens automatically. But after 17 albums… I’ve done 17 albums in 20 years and I’ve written every song pretty much. I didn’t realize it, it felt natural.
But now it feels natural to slow down. And I feel happy about it. It’s a very big gift to be a musician. When I listen to “Moonglow” it’s a great album and I didn’t expect it to be finished so early. I don’t know why it happened, but it is there so why not release it. But I don’t want to do it because I have to do it. I want to do it because I believe in it and if it feels right. The Beatles split up after eight years because they’ve said everything.
You have to be really careful not to get exhausted and caught up in a machine. I understand what Devin Townsend means. I’ve never met him in person, or maybe I have. Not that I remember now. But he’s a good musician, I have some of his albums. He’s a creative person and creative persons are sensitive and have to take care of their creativity.
Speaking of that, since your music contains a lot of layers and these grandiose moments, I’m interested in your creative process. Do you imagine the songs as they will be at the end and slowly build to it or do you start with a single riff and build up to see what comes of it.
Tobi: It’s hard because I never really analyze it. Usually, it starts with an idea somewhere, but I don’t know. I don’t know, I’ve never made this a science. I have an idea or a chorus, I’m a very chorus-oriented writer. That probably goes back to the days when I listened to “Living on a Prayer”, Desmond Child. He pretty much built his career on one chorus (laughs).
I have a lot of respect for him, I didn’t mean to be disrespectful. But he’s very chorus-oriented. And I go from there as well, then I build things around it. Sometimes I have a clear vision of what it should be like and sometimes I make some changes. But I always write melodies and harmonies and all these things at the same time. You start from somewhere and you build it up. And sometimes it becomes what you have figured from the beginning and sometimes it develops in a different direction.
But I don’t believe in what heavy metal musicians often do: they come up with an instrumental version or a riff and then they give it to someone else to make the melodies. It may work for some, and the outcome may be good. But there’s a good reason for putting a certain chord in a certain passage because there is a certain melody.
Imagine the guitar player of Europe said “I have written ‘The Final Countdown’ and it goes ‘tun-tu-du-dun,’ do something about it. We could ‘tu-du-du-tum, tu-du-dum tum tum’.” It’s a combination of both, they go hand in hand. I can’t imagine Mozart doing that. I don’t want to compare myself to Mozart, except for the haircut really. “Here are some strings. See if you can add some melody to it, like a piano”. It all goes hand in hand, but things are not fixed. It can’t be adjusted. So there are no rules. Wow, my answers are so long. People will start calling me Lars Ulrich.
Your new album features a lot of old Avantasians coming back like Eric Martin, Ronnie Atkins, Jorn, Michael Kiske of course. Do you prefer working with basically the stable lineup…
Tobi: No, they were the only ones I could get (laughs). No, that was a joke! Everybody knows I love you put your name here… Eric, Michi… No, these are the people that were asked. But I didn’t let you finish your question.
That’s the question: given the freedom you have with Avantasia in that you could get new people for every album, why is it that you prefer the stable lineup you have, both live and in the studio.
Tobi: I always try to bring new people, but first I think about the song and I try to get the song what it needs. And these people mean something to me. That’s why they’ve been there for so long. Because their voices mean something to me.
Even though some people have a different opinion about it, I always say Avantasia is not a trophy collection. I don’t want it to become gimmicky. People say why don’t you ask Axl Rose, please. I could have, and the record would have probably come out in 2080. He probably wouldn’t have done it. But people say ask him or ask him, why don’t you ask Bugs Bunny.
These people work with me and have been on tour with me: Ronnie Atkins, Jorn Lande. Bob Catley! Michi Kiske and Eric also. These people mean something to me. They have been in the frontline with me and traveled the world with me and have done that because they are great singers that have inspired me. And it’s really inspirational to write a song for these people. When I write a song in the back of my mind I have Michael Kiske or Eric Martin or Bob… You approach a song differently when you write it for Bob. I imagine his stage moves and it becomes a Magnum-ish Avantasia song. It’s magic and a great gift to work with these singers. And they are amazing.
And Geoff Tate! When I was a kid I listened to the “Eyes of a Stranger”, “I Don’t Believe in Love” and “Operation Mindcrime”, and I still do. And “Rage for Order”. And suddenly I’m standing next to Geoff on stage. It was funny; the first time we played with Geoff live I introduced him and said “This is not a hologram. This is Geoff Fucking Tate”. And he was laughing. But that’s what I really felt. It was just… wow. This is Geoff Tate (sings “Eyes of a Stranger”).
Don’t get me wrong, I’m really happy to have all of them on the album. Especially Eric Martin, because he only sang on one song in the studio and he was brilliant throughout the tour. He’s one of the biggest names in Avantasia, but also one of the biggest fans of Avantasia. He’s always promoting you: interviews, t-shirts, videos… everywhere.
Tobi: For sure, he’s one of the funniest, maybe the funniest person. It’s so great to have him around. We’re looking forward to the tour and our e-mail group of weird musicians has fun. We have fun and email each other, send text messages and have different groups. He’s extremely fun. It’s a blessing to be allowed to work with Eric.
Eric is great and a great frontman. He’s a great frontman. And it’s great to throw the ball, as we say in Germany, back and forth on stage when we make a speech. And you have to watch out that you don’t get a five-minute speech when we throw the ball at each other. He’s great. It’s a blessing and also a great singer.
First and foremost, I would say.
Tobi: Yeah, but he’s as funny as he is a good singer.
We actually met him in Budapest after the show, he was hanging out with fans for I don’t know how long. Then two drunk guys came shouting “Jorn, Jorn” like crazy.
Tobi: Was it Ronnie and Jorn?
No, some Hungarian guys. And anybody would have left, but he moved them because the van was parking in. The most humble person I have met. I was deeply impressed.
Tobi: He’s just cool. Just a good character. But I have to say, everyone in Avantasia is and that’s why we get along so well. Everybody is looking forward. The tour is relatively short because everyone is doing their stuff.
Pretty Maids are doing their stuff and Magnum is doing their stuff. Eric is doing a tour with Mr. Big or solo. So everybody has his own things going on. Geoff’s constantly on tour. So we always find a very short time frame, so that’s why we know it’s very limited. There’s a very limited capacity for us to tour. And that constellation is so special that we enjoy it so much. It’s great and it’s great fun.
It’s magic and it shows on stage.
Tobi: It doesn’t feel like business at all. It feels like we’re a team.
Given that you spend a lot of time together all the time and the tours last for several months, are there any fights or tensions between you, except for when Jorn sings drunk while everybody is sleeping?
Tobi: Ah, yeah. Did I tell you that? I don’t know if he had been drunk, but everybody else had been drunk and that’s why we were sleeping. That was on the first tour on the bus. Nobody dared to interrupt him because we were secretly afraid he would stop singing, because it was so great. Did I tell you the story?
You actually told it in Budapest on stage, before “Lucifer”.
Tobi: Yeah, that was on the first tour in the Czech Republic, I remember. And he was singing in Norwegian and everybody had a headache, we had drunk. It was one of the last shows on the first tour. But it was so beautiful. Afterward, I spoke to our then bass player Robert and he said “I had such a headache, and I wanted him to stop. But it was so beautiful, so please don’t stop.” There’s hardly tension, not really. Because everybody is there and they appreciate to be there. And that’s a very good condition to get along well.
Up till now, you’ve had your music idols and heroes guest on Avantasia album. Do you see yourself ever doing an album with people who consider you a hero? Younger singers like Herbie Langhans on the last album. Inviting younger musicians who were influenced by you.
Tobi: I haven’t thought about it. I can’t answer that question. Things have to develop naturally, and Herbie was in the studio doing the demo. And he was so great, we said “who should do this better. Who would be a better solution than Herbie?” Why should we get somebody else? He had done the demo for somebody else, and then we left it.
That just happened, and things like that have to happen. It’s not that I want to write an album and say let’s find young musicians I’ve influenced. I don’t know who I influenced. Let them sing on my album. It still has to do something with my dreams. But if there’s a great singer, why not.
Like Cloudy Young, who was our singer on the first tour. She was singing a demo too, and it was so great. I think it was “Sleepwalking”. We wanted someone else to sing on the record, but we said “No, leave it. It’s beautiful. It’s perfect.” Things like that happen, but they happen naturally.
We already know there are a couple of names like Sebastian Bach, Meat Loaf and even Dio who were supposed to be on an album, but for reasons didn’t. Are there any other musicians we don’t know of that were almost on an album, but never showed up.
Tobi: Yes, there are. But I won’t mention them because they might show up if I ever do an Avantasia album again. Which, of course, I probably will. I just won’t tell you when, because I’ll have pressure. It can be five years or two years. Probably not two years, but I have no idea when.
I always wanted to have Bruce Dickinson. Every record Rod Smallwood says “uhhhh, no” (laughs). What can you do? You cannot really entice Bruce Dickinson and bribe him with money. Because if there’s one thing Bruce Dickinson does not need it’s more money.
Bring a portable recording studio and hijack his plane – there’s an idea!
Tobi: It doesn’t happen. He’s so busy with his own stuff and I don’t think he’s doing things outside Iron Maiden and his solo project. So fair enough. That would be a dream of mine, but right now it’s not really possible. Apart from that, I don’t know. Not really. There’s one, but maybe in the future. So I won’t say now. Because someone else is going to steal him or her.
We’re looking at you, Arjen! I won’t take any more of your time. Do you have any final messages for your fans in Serbia and our readers?
Tobi: Well, I want to thank you for your support and apologize. I just spoke to the guys who do the videos and Staća today. We never played here, and I don’t know why. We should do that. With Avantasia, I think it’s a little bit difficult, but with Edguy maybe it could happen. But I want to thank you and hope that one day we can play in Serbia. I haven’t been here for eight years I think.
We shot the first Avantasia video here and in 2009 we did the Edguy video for “Ministry of Saints”. And it’s beautiful here. It’s a beautiful city. And I believe it’s a big city and I believe there should be heavy metal fans here. We should really speak to a booking agency about that. But I really hope that we can play here one day. We come here to shoot videos, so why not come here to play a live show!