With the release of the spellbinding 3-CD live album Live Beyond the Spheres soon to be upon us, I have the absolute pleasure of chatting with the very open and charming Marcus Siepen, guitarist for Germany’s Power Metal titans, Blind Guardian. It’s been 14 years since the release of the band’s previous live offering, simply entitled Live, so we start out discussing why now is the right time for another.
“Well, one of the reasons you just named,” Siepen puts it frankly, “the last one was fourteen years ago. It was about time. We did three studio albums since we released Live back in 2003, and we had line-up changes after that. Frederik [Ehmke] came into the band, and we never had any live releases with him around so far. We just thought after we did the last studio album Beyond the Red Mirror, it would be a good idea to record some things from this tour we did for the album. In the end, we recorded pretty much every single show,” he laughs. “So it was just the right time, and we tried to put together a good set for the tour. When we put together the setlist we didn’t think so much about the live album. We were focusing on the shows. But after we finished the tour and we started putting together the setlist for the live album, we tried to put together the typical Blind Guardian set that was played in those 21 months. And I think the result turned out very, very well. At least we are very happy with it, and so far the feedback that we’ve heard from people who’ve listened to it already has been pretty rewarding, so we’re happy.”
With the recording of the European tour such a monumental task, I question whether the creation of this live album was very different from the previous one.
“For us not really,” Siepen admits, “because we just play shows. The thing is, we don’t really think about the fact that we’re recording. At least for me, if I go on stage and constantly think, ‘Oh fuck, we’re recording this so I have to play everything perfectly,’ it would influence the stage performance. Be more static, don’t run around as much, and try not to bang your head, whatever. Because the crazier the things you do on stage, it can affect your playing, obviously. If I just stand still I can play everything perfectly fine and I don’t have to worry about any fuck-ups, but it would be boring for the audience. But if I just go crazy on stage, then my playing will be more sloppy. But you don’t think about this, you just go for it and try to play the best show you can in that moment. And at the other end of it you will have to sit down and go over the recordings and figure out which takes were the best. That’s one of the reasons we recorded so many shows, because obviously we could have recorded just one gig, or two gigs, and said ‘We’ll focus on those two, and we’ll make the live album.’ But then, many things can go wrong,” he says with a knowing look that I can practically hear down the phone. “You can have technical problems with the recording system, failures or whatever and you could lose the show, or just the everyday things can happen. One of the main songs you want to put on the album, you break a string or something. Things like that happen, and if you’re only recording one show, then you have a problem. And since we recorded every show, we didn’t have any problems!” he laughs, as the only problem they did have was a good one to have.
“The only problem we had was a time problem because the more shows you want to check, the more time you have to edit at the end. And if four people sit down and listen to – I don’t know how many shows we played, 150 or something – we listen to all those shows, and take notes on every single song, and compare those notes, and see if we agree on certain songs or if we don’t, it can take forever. So that’s why in the end we focused on the first European block, because there the recording consistency was the highest and it just worked very well because we had our own recording system with us every single night, it was the same PA who did everything, the full production, every single line, so that gives you a certain consistency in the result of the recordings. But we recorded everything, so we’re still sitting on a whole lot of live recordings that we might end up using later, as official bootlegs, we don’t really know yet. There are some pretty good shows that we made and that we still have lying here, so we’ll see,” Siepen teases. He then delivers some sage advice for artists. “The recording process is pretty much the same for us, you go out on stage and play the gig and try not to worry about any recordings. Let the recording people worry about those things, and just do your thing on stage. Best thing you can do.”
We then drill further into the process of song selection. How can you possibly narrow it down after so many quality shows?
“You listen to those shows, and you make notes. And you end up with a pile of notes saying whatever, ‘I think Prophecy was the best at that show, and Mirror Mirror was the best at that show, blah blah blah,’ and in the end, you have to compare your notes. There were certain songs that we immediately all agreed on and said, ‘Yeah, that was the best,’ and there were other songs that we disagreed on, and we had to go again, listen to that stuff, compare and analyze. You have a tendency to focus on your own performance. I think it’s natural, everyone, of course, listens to what they did in that song. Was my performance good? Did I fuck up? Whatever. And sometimes you have to try to listen to the whole thing, what the others did as well. In the end it’s just narrowing it down step by step. Of course, it’s also a question of, ‘How did the audience react?’ because that’s a very important part of a live album. The audience is part of the whole show as well. You just try to find the best version, which means you have to listen again and again and narrow it down, and in the end hopefully you’ll agree on that one song, and you can move on to the next song.”
Anyone who’s been to a Blind Guardian show knows just how big a part the audience plays in the experience, and how dedicated the band are to getting them involved. For Siepen, everything revolves around the audience.
“It makes all the difference. If we go on stage and we play well it will end up being a good show, but a special show, a magic show, it has to be the energy between the band and the audience. Because we go on stage and we give everything, we put everything into the first song, and if the audience gives that energy back to us, then it gets higher and higher, and that makes the show really special. So the audience is a vital part of any show. Denying that would be lying. We try to be good, but it has to be the audience as well.”
“Obviously you realise if you’re playing well, and the other guys in the band are playing well. We’re human beings, we have our ups and downs. Somebody might get sick or whatever, and obviously that effects your playing. If you’re flying to a show – coming to Australia, I don’t have to tell you that you are flying for quite a bit,” he notes wryly. “You’re exhausted. If you have time off, a day off before you go on stage, that works. But you know, sometimes you don’t have the chance for that. You fly into a country and you have to go on stage immediately, and that effects your show. But we pretty much realise how a show will end up after one or two songs. You can see how the audience are going nuts, how they’re singing, how they’re reacting to the show, just getting into it. It’s pretty obvious right from the start how the night will go on. If you realise this is going to be a special, really good night, it pushes you even further. Because we have expectations ourselves as well. If you go to a city where you’ve played before, where you know people are amazing there, of course you want that again when you come back next. If you have those expectations, and you get up on stage and you can see your expectations are fulfilled, it’s beautiful.”
It’s important to acknowledge and appreciate the difficulties European bands face in getting to Australia, and I mention hearing from Norwegians Sirenia that it took them 36 hours to get here. That’s dedication.
“It is,” Siepen agrees, “and you know, 36 hours on a plane, it’s not fun. You don’t know how to sit, you watch every single fucking movie that’s on offer to help the time pass. I just can’t sleep on the plane. Last time, on the way back from Australia on the previous tour, the way back to Germany took us 39 hours,” he laments. “I slept maybe two of those 39 hours, maybe three max, and you’re dead when you arrive. On the way back we didn’t have to play a gig, but if you have to go on stage after such a trip, you have a problem. But there is nothing you can do about it.”
Despite the amazing endurance required, Siepen has been playing and touring with Blind Guardian for 30 years. I ask him what’s changed in that time.
He considers that for a moment, then laughs, “I like to think we got better and better! We didn’t have any experience in the beginning, you know? When we released Battalions of Fear we did a small tour with friends of ours in Germany, and we travelled from city to city and we played a gig every night. You party in the beginning because you have no experience, and then the next day you’re hungover and you’re playing sloppy, and you’re feeling like shit. It’s a learning process. So pretty early on we learnt partying like that doesn’t work, because it really effects your show. It’s learning a lesson, for us it was step by step. I think in the end, where we are now in the evolution, I think we’re in our peak. Just looking back on that previous tour, I think performance-wise we have never been as good as we were over the course of those 21 months. It involves a lot of discipline.” Siepen gives us some realism about touring. “The thing is, you’re travelling so much. 15 people on a bus, or on a plane or whatever. One person gets sick, and two days later at least three more are sick. You can’t do anything about it. If one guy catches the flu on a bus, then somebody else will get it. So you try to live the healthy lifestyle, you know? You try to get as much sleep as you can, you try to eat healthy, proper food, you try to have your vitamins, health foods, whatever. Especially for Hansi [Kürsch], it’s a very strict routine, because touring for 21 months, it’s very demanding for his voice.” Siepen goes on to describe the unbelievable vocal regime Kürsch has to maintain. “We play rather long shows. The average show we played on the tour was two hours and ten minutes, two hours and twenty, something like that. For him it meant he had to do warm-up exercises for about three hours every day, and then after the gig he did calming, cooling down exercises for another hour. It’s the only way his voice can make it through. If he doesn’t take care of his voice, it will be fucked at some point, and if the singer gets a sore throat or loses his voice, there is absolutely nothing he can do. If I get the flu, I can still play the guitar. It doesn’t affect my playing.” As Siepen talks, I’m silently amazed by the fact that the man could still get on stage and play a blistering two and a half hour set with the flu. “The only thing it will effect is my stage performance, but I can still play. But if the singer has problems in his throat, or catches a cold or the flu or whatever, then he has a problem and there is nothing you can do. So he has to keep this really strict routine every single day, and he did it. And that’s why it worked for such a long time. I think we never performed as well on a tour as we did on this one. That’s also the feedback I heard from fans and friends who came to some of the shows. There’s a good friend of mine who came to a couple of the shows, and he didn’t see us for a couple of years, and he said he was so blown away by the way we performed now. And it’s good to hear something like that. It’s like a reward for all the work you put into it. We always try to do the best things we can possibly do, every single night. People come and pay for a ticket, they deserve a good show, and we try to deliver that. That’s our attitude.”
With such dedication to quality, is there a conscious effort to improve or update the band’s older songs? It’s a matter Siepen feels strongly about.
“Not really. We normally don’t change anything in the songs unless we do a part where we let the audience sing or whatever, a couple of songs we do that from time to time. But aside from that, we play them pretty much the way they were recorded on the album because that’s what we meant to do back when we recorded them. I don’t really feel like messing with them, because those songs exactly represent what we have been like back in whatever time. When we did Battalions of Fear, we recorded songs like Majesty, and that’s exactly what Blind Guardian was like in 1988. I don’t feel like changing that. If we would re-write and record the song today, obviously it would be different because we are different, 30 years later. We changed as musicians, we changed as songwriters, we changed as human beings. Everything around us changed. Obviously it would sound different compared to what we did in ’88. And if you compare Beyond the Red Mirror to Battalions of Fear, it’s a whole different album. But we don’t mess with the old songs because they show what Blind Guardian was like back then, and that goes for every single album. So if we play Majesty or Banish from Sanctuary or Imaginations or whatever, we stick with the original songs because that’s how we wrote them back then, that’s how we liked them to be, and that’s how we still like them.”
It’s beautiful to have that kind of fidelity to the old material, I note, especially for fans who want to hear that material as they remember it.
“I agree. And if we stick to the original versions, it also shows the diversity. Because the old songs sound different compared to the stuff we did on Nightfall or Imaginations, and that stuff sounds different compared to what we did on A Night at the Opera or At the Edge of Time or whatever. It shows the development of the band. We don’t mess with it. We don’t have to make old songs sound like the new songs, or mellow them down, or whatever. We like to keep them the way we meant them to be, and that’s right for us.”
But with so much material to draw from, how do the band plan what they will include in their sets?
“Normally we play rather long sets, so that helps. We can squeeze more songs into the set. We’re still using the same old trick, we change the setlist every night. The average set contains 18 songs, but we rehearse 45, or something like that. We try to change it up every single night. There’s a certain block of songs that’s fixed, that we don’t mess with. That’s for example the first six or seven songs, they pretty much stay the same every single night, because it’s nice to have a certain routine at the beginning of the set. You can get into the gig without worrying too much about anything. If you, for example, put a new song as the first song, as the opener, it might fuck your mind because you’re standing at the side of the stage, the intro’s playing, and you’re worried. ‘Oh fuck, we didn’t play that song yet, I hope I won’t fuck it up, blah blah,’ you know? If you have this block of songs you can play automatically, you don’t have to worry about anything. And it gets you into the gig very deeply and comfortably. And after that, you start messing around with a couple of songs, you change this one for an old classic. You can play around with things. Like this, we can squeeze in way more songs, which was especially good for the recording, because we got the chance to record all those songs. It’s good for people who come to more than just one show, because they get a different gig. It’s good for us because if we would play the same 18 songs for almost two years every single night, it would be so fucking boring.” I can hear the time dragging just at the thought of it. “It would turn into a kind of 9 – 5 job where you do the very same thing every day, and we don’t want that. We want to change things, we want to keep it fresh and interesting. Someone might not be in the mood for whatever song, you just kick it out of the set, replace it with something different, and everything’s fine again. So that’s our way of working ourselves through it. We play songs that we love, but doing the same thing every day – Nah, it’s not our thing. We like to change things.”
Naturally, we get onto the topic of touring Australia.
“Australia, for us, is literally the other side of the world. When we had the chance to finally play there for the first time, it was mind-blowing. The first time we came, we had some days off. The first time we played Melbourne, we had a hotel right next to this market thingy, it was like a huge flea market. We could go there and do some shopping, explore the area. And I remember the first time we played Sydney, we had four days off before we even played the show. It was mind-blowing. It’s amazing. There’s so many memories. Whenever we arrive, our promoter keeps warning us, ‘Don’t put your feet in your shoes, check them out for scorpions or very venomous spiders,’” he remembers fondly. “All the warnings that come every now and then, it’s awesome. It’s always good to come back. I’m already looking forward to returning to Australia, because I just love it.”
It’s wonderful to hear that sincerity, and gives me hope that it won’t be too long before we see Blind Guardian on our shores again. But what’s in their immediate future?
“Three different things. The main focus is the orchestral album. So Hansi can finally finish his vocal recordings this year. The original plan was to have him record it in breaks in between the tour blocks. But it just didn’t work out at all because touring is just way too demanding for his voice, and he needed those breaks to rest his voice. When you’ve come off the road after three months, your voice is not in the shape to do proper album recordings. We had to abandon that idea pretty early on. So he can finally finish his recordings now, and we can do the mixing and mastering and everything, and hope we put out the album next year, finally!” I can tell it’s been a long time in coming for the band. “So that’s one of the main focuses. The next one is we’ve already starting working on new, regular songs for the next regular Blind Guardian album. So those songs are pretty much done now, and we’re working on more stuff. And there will be some shows, at least. We won’t play lots, we’ll play eleven or twelve festivals over Europe this summer. We’ll just take it easy, play a couple of shows. The main focus is definitely the orchestral album, and working on new songs so we can put out a new studio album. I can’t say when yet. If you’re familiar with Blind Guardian, you know how we feel about deadlines,” he says deadpan, then laughs, “We try to ignore them.” But he assures me, “Work has started. We are really working on new songs, but I have no idea how long it will take us when along with working on new regular songs, we’re also working on finalising the orchestral album. We’re doing our best to make it as soon as possible. But as always, we take all the time we need to finish it in the way we think it has to be done. I’m optimistic that the orchestral album will be out next year, and it would be perfect if we could put out the next regular album the year after that. But I can’t make any promises, because I just don’t know. We shall see.”
As we wrap up the conversation, Siepen has one last message for all the readers at Overdrive.
“Thank you for all the great times we’ve had with you guys in Australia. It was a dream come true when we had the first chance to come to Australia, and we have come back ever since, and we will continue to come back, because we just love playing for you guys. And no matter how much the travelling sucks, it’s always worth it to come there. So we’ll be back for sure, as soon as possible.”