Interview with Tobias Sammet of AVANTASIA

by Anya Svirskaya

Antihero Magazine photojournalist Anya Svirskaya sat down for a chat with Avantasia mastermind, Tobias Sammet, and talks about the creative process and the latest album, Ghostlights.

Looking back at your discography, you have released Mystery of Time in 2013, and then Space Police in 2014, followed by Ghostlights for 2015. How are you able to focus and find time to make the best possible albums on such a timeline? How do you keep things fresh to make the best possible material?

Well, it’s actually not so difficult if you adjust your pace and to your natural outcome and creativity. I never see any pressure, actually. If the material is not there – if it just doesn’t come out – you have to wait a little longer until you have those songs together. I also believe that. I know a lot of musicians who complain how stressful it was to put out the new album and to put it together because it’s just that 24 months for songwriting, and you have to write songs and be on tour at the same time, and all that. When I was a young musician, I was working. I remember I did my civil service, instead of going into the military.

Oh wow, civil service?

I did civil service. It was the only thing I worked, ever. I was working in a place for handicapped people. I was working every day until half past 4…every day. Then I went back home and worked on music. Even when we did the Vainglory Opera album with Edguy, it was that case. I was working all day and then I was working on music. I was even starting early so I could leave a little earlier, and go straight to the studio and record. I was thankful to be able to play music and record and be creative. I didn’t get paid for it, it actually cost me money doing that back then.

It must have been hard, but the outcome was worth it.

It was. So now, I always remember that. I don’t want to become one of those musicians who complain about the terrifying pace of being a musician. Whenever I feel it’s time to slow down, I will. I don’t think it’s much work, actually, to put out ten songs in whatever, 15 months or 18 months. That’s one song a month. I don’t perceive creativity as work; I perceive it as a gift. I am thankful, I don’t take for granted that I am allowed to sit on a piano and chase melodies, and get actually paid to work them out, arrange them, get Dee Snyder in to record them, and to release them. And the same for Edguy – Space Police was a great album. I am really proud of it. I’ve never felt that. Well, actually I felt it was work at a certain point, but it’s not that I thought I was under pressure.

And as a musician I am sure you are writing all the time and on your own terms.

I do… If there’s one thing that…if there’s one luxury – I am happy about being a musician who’s selling a certain amount of records – it’s that I’m economically independent enough to just force my pace upon the music industry, and not the other way around. Do you know what I mean? It’s just great to be able to say, “Well, I don’t think I’m going to be able to give you an album next December. You will have to wait until June.” I don’t starve if we postpone an album, even by one or two years. Knowing that, having that in the back of my mind…It even supports your creativity in a way. You even get more creative because you know you don’t have to. That even sets more power free.

It’s nice to have that freedom. That’s why you can release the best possible album after taking your time with it. After listening to Ghostlights, my first impression is that it’s a very strong and diverse record with a complex storyline, and perhaps the darkest that you have attempted. What was your arrangement and writing process for this particular album?

Yes, that is correct… It was very chaotic, I have to say. (Laughs) But pretty much like every time; of course, I had a topic that was set. It was predestined because the topic was the sequel to the Mystery of Time story-wise. And of course, I knew more or less which direction I would want to go with the lyrics. I didn’t have a clue how exactly they would come out, or what turns the story would take, but I knew what I wanted to say, basically. I’m bad at just sitting there and enjoying it, the way is what I enjoy the most. Of course the result is rewarding, in a way, but it’s getting there that is the fun part of it.

Process before product?

Yes. You have to imagine, we’re living in this house. In the basement, I have a couple of rooms, like a man-cave (laughs), so to speak – A music room. They’re all set up with instruments here and there. Not expensive ones, really basic stuff. Every now and then I go into to the basement with a glass of red wine. Once a week or twice a week, whenever I feel like it. Sometimes without red wine, I’m not an alcoholic. I just play around. Some men go into the basement, you know watching sports and building model trains, and I go into my basement, my model train is the beautiful world of Avantasia, or sometimes EdGuy as well.

That is a very relaxing atmosphere and sounds like a nice escape as well. Your surroundings allow you to create you music naturally.

Yes, that is how I approach things, and to me it’s just the joy of doing it that makes everything fall into place, literally by itself. It was all working hand in hand. I had the topic, and then I was writing some songs. Sometimes you have a great melody, and you think, “Oh this could be sung by ‘Michael Kiske.’” Some songs you write and you think, mood-wise, the spirit of the song could represent a certain passage of the story. I don’t know who exactly this character is going to be portrayed by, but I have a feeling. It all happens by trial and error, basically, and it all happens on the go, it all happens on the fly, while you’re doing it. That’s a great thing.

That’s the main thing.

Yeah, that’s pretty much the way I approach things

That is evident, because it does sound like there was a lot of heart put into creating this album. It is an honest sounding album.

Yeah, there certainly was.

One of the elements that makes Avantasia so special is the guest vocalists. What was it like to work with Dee Snyder and Geoff Tate?

Well, it was great to be able to work with those two persons, because they have characters, they have personalities. Of course, I’ve always been a huge fan of the voice of Geoff Tate. Because singers like Michael Kiske who inspired me, were also inspired by Geoff Tate. Even Michael as a young singer was inspired by Geoff Tate. I think every vocalist who sings that kind of falsetto that we in what most people call your ping power metal. Those kinds of singers are all inspired by Geoff Tate. I had this song, and it was not really a piece I would ask Geoff Tate for that song, because in the beginning, that song sounded like a very heavy version of “Black Dog” by Led Zeppelin. It just had that mid-section that was reminiscent of Rage for Order a la Queensryche. First, I was thinking it should be someone sounding like a young Robert Plant to sing that song. But then I thought, no, no that’s too obvious having a song sounding like “Black Dog” with someone sounding like Robert Plant. So I thought, what would a completely different type of singer do to a song like that? Since I had a mid-section that was already resembling Queensryche, I just thought what if Geoff Tate could sing that song? And I got in touch with them, sent them the track, and they already had a pretty tight schedule. He really, really loved the song, and said “I want to do it, if I can squeeze it into my schedule.” So it worked out as you can hear. I feel blessed.

With Dee Snyder, it was the same thing. I had a song that was completely recorded, the music, and also some guide vocals, some demo vocals that I had done. And I was trying to find the right personality and the right character and the right voice to sing that song. The song had two different voices; literally, two different moods had to be transported. In the verse, it was a very theatrical type of spoken vocals, in a way. It was not spoken, but the character, the nature of the vocal lines was very, very theatrical, almost as if it was a Broadway scene. In the chorus, it was more an anthemic, melancholic singing that children’s melody, almost like a vocalist who would sound … I was figuring somebody who would portray the child character in that movie “Chitty Chitty Bang Bang,” you know. I was going through my record collection, and I was thinking, “It’s got to be Dee Snyder.”

Were you a big Twisted Sister fan growing up?

As a kid, I had always been a huge fan of Dee Snyder, because he was flamboyant, he was tongue-in-cheek, he was mean, and he was not taking everything too seriously. But then, of course, he was like 10-feet tall. Dressing like a woman, you know, looking like a football player, it’s true. That was just … I mean, he was dragging, he was throwing a teacher through basketball hoops in videos, and as I figured, making millions doing all that stuff that I felt was so super cool. I thought this is the after-tone of a rock n’ roll singer. He’s loud, fresh, flamboyant, annoying. Everything the parents are going to hate. And still, it was smart, in a way. It still has that distant, tongue-in-cheek kind of way. He was not a drugged-out idiot; he was just taking the piss out of anyone and everyone. So I was a huge fan of Dee Snyder and then I was going through my record collection, I thought, it’s got to be Dee Snyder. I asked him to listen to the track, and he loved it! Right off the bat! He said, “I love it, I’m going to do it.” So I feel blessed.

Yes, that certainly beats building a model airplane working with one of your childhood heroes. You’ve worked with numerous musicians in the past. Who has been your favorite to work with?

Oh, that’s not a fair question! (Laughs) I’ve worked with so many great musicians. I would say now, Bruce Kulick is the nicest guy in the whole universe and one of my favorite guitar players of all time. Bruce Kulick is amazing. But I love Oliver Hartman and Sascha Paeth. Michael Kiske is a very good private friend of mine as well, so it would not be fair. (Laughs)

Fair enough. Are there any memorable experiences that come to mind that you can share?

Of course. To me it was, back then, working with Alice Cooper. That was kind of … It felt surreal to me that a little boy from a little village in the middle of nowhere in Germany all of a sudden had Alice Cooper sing a track on his album. Working with Eric Singer and KISS, that whole thing back then with The Scarecrow, …really, really going through the roof. That was amazing! But, you know, I’ve worked with … I don’t know, 40 musicians. People like Klaus Meine and Rudolf Schenker of the Scorpions, and Joe Lynn Turner, Alice Cooper, Geoff Tate, and Eric Martin of Mr. Big. I’ve worked with so many great musicians. All of them were really, really kind, all of them. The true greats in rock history are obviously not assholes. That’s something I’m really happy about, because a lot of people are really different when they meet their idols. Not the case, not a single person I’ve worked with was a prick. It was really … They were all nice people, and they were all what I could’ve hoped they would be like. And that’s why I’m very, very thankful. There’s hardly anything that beats being me right now. (Laughs)

That must have been a great experience to be able to work with those musicians considering you were a fan growing up.

Absolutely. I would have never imagined that would ever happen. When I was a young musician, of course, you dream about going on stage and having people sing along to your own songs, you know. Then it happens actually, and then you’re playing bigger places, and then you play a bigger place, and then all of a sudden, you’re playing with that guy. With Edguy, we did support tours with Aerosmith, Scorpions, Deep Purple, and Iron Maiden. When things like happen, and all of a sudden you get a chance to work with those people, like Eric, Bruce and Alice Cooper, you name it … That’s just, it’s just surreal. I feel really blessed, actually, to be in that position. What can you say? It’s amazing. It’s still hard to believe. We’re still afraid of waking up one day and being the plumber that I used to be before. I haven’t been a plumber, but it’s just right now … I don’t want to bad mouth the job of being a plumber now. But waking up one day in the morning and just finding out that this is all not true and didn’t happen and … Just dreamed it. That would be … That would suck!

It’s pretty admirable, knowing what your passion is, and making it a goal to make that into your career. Not giving up, and not listening to what others were telling you. I don’t know if you were ever in that situation, where others pushed you to conform to what society wanted you to be. But you stuck to your guns and look at you today.

You know, I was told on numerous cases that what I was doing was not valuable and wouldn’t have any future. I don’t know if I was naïve to just go on and ignore whatever advice people had given me. I remember when I started Avantasia, I wanted to get a record contract. Edguy was an up- and-coming band, we had not gone through the roof, it was not working through yet, I mean, it was just … It was an up-and-coming band, and obviously record companies were starting to get interested in it because they smelled some money they could make from us. All of a sudden, when it was starting to get going, I was having the idea of doing a rock opera, a metal opera in particular, and doing that project. People thought I was nuts because they said, “You haven’t established your own band yet, and you already want to do side projects?” I said, “I’m not going to do side projects, I’m going to do a musical, I’m going to do metal opera.” This is not just a side project, it’s a metal opera. Like Andrew Lloyd Weber does Phantom of the Opera, or whatever. Was that Andrew Lloyd Weber? I think so. I just wanted to do that thing, and people were just like … The record company said, “Oh, you’re nuts, we’re not really interested. Nobody needs that right now.” All the business experts were like, “Nobody needs that.” Some record companies … Even alternative companies; Even Nuclear Blast said they were interested in it. They said we’re only going to release it as a favor if we’re getting Edguy. But we were not … But we still had a contract.

So the only company that was really interested was that small German label that gave us that terrible deal that we have now with the first two records, and we will never get them back anyway. But anyway, they were the first to do it, and nobody else believed in it.

If I had not learned that you shouldn’t listen to weird advice, by that time I had learned it, if I hadn’t learned that before. After the release of the metal opera, I learned that you should just always follow your instincts. Because, you know, they were all proven wrong. It was everywhere! It was charting. Back then, when you really had to sell a lot of records to be on the charts, and not just seven copies a week. You had to really sell, and we were like 30 on the charts or something with that album. And that was the shocking thing, it was a real big thing, and in Japan, in France, Scandinavia. And after that, Edguy went through the roof as well. Yeah… Never listen to the advice of people that you don’t really think much of.

You’ve got to stick to your guns always and follow your instincts.

Yeah, always!

Speaking of the Metal Opera. Yesterday was the 15th anniversary of part 1.

Yeah, Yeah!

Going back, you just told me that you had this project in mind and others were not giving you sound advice … Looking back on all that you’ve accomplished since then, was it everything that you wanted it to be?

It was way more than I wanted it to be. I just wanted to do that album back then, I just wanted to fulfill my dream. You know, pretty much the press was the purpose. The way to the final result was what I enjoyed, I wanted to work with Michael Kiske, I wanted to do an album that was just … The album that I would want to own myself, as a music fan. That was pretty much all I wanted to do. And I didn’t just want to do a plain album; I wanted to do an all-star album, with my all-stars. Not all-stars in the same sense that I wanted to have commercial big stars. I wanted my personal stars. That were not big mainstream stars, it was David Defais from Virgin Steel, Andre Matos from Angre , Rob Rock, Bob Catley, those kinds of stars. Those were my stars.

I just wanted to record, and I wanted to be able to pay everybody fair. That is what I was hoping for, and I wanted to recoup. I wanted to get the money back that I invested. Of course, I didn’t sign a very good deal, so I didn’t make much money from it, even though I sold shitloads of records. It was just amazing, more than I hoped for, definitely. It proved that if you do something you believe in, you will win. You will succeed.

Everything always works out in the end, if you work hard and follow your instincts.

Yeah. And I just talked to the management of Helloween who are friends. Back then, we were already in touch, and they were saying, “Don’t do a metal opera! Don’t do it!” Bottom Row Promotion. I didn’t work with them, but they are still kind of friends because it’s a small business, an incestuous business. We’ve had many counts afterward about it, when they’ve said, “Jesus Christ, you can be so happy that you didn’t listen to the advice we gave you back then.” Because they were some of the people who said, “Don’t do it, don’t do it!” And I said, “Yes, I want to do it. I know it doesn’t make sense, economically it doesn’t make sense, maybe business-wise, but I simply … It makes sense because I love it.” It’s not reasonable to buy a new Iron Maiden record. No, it’s just quite fun to buy a new Iron Maiden record. You know, that’s why … I always perceived in that way as a fan. I didn’t want to do things that were reasonable. I wanted to do things that I felt needed to be done to make me happy.

Going back to your earlier discussion. Do you have any bucket list musicians who you would love to collaborate with one day?

Paul Stanley of Kiss and Bruce Dickenson of Iron Maiden.

Well, Bruce Dickenson recently recovered from his battle with cancer. So that may be doable one day.

Yeah! I hope so. I really hope so, that would be a great chance. I mean, Paul Stanley, I hope so, maybe one day I can do as well. And if I can add two more?

Go right ahead.

Meatloaf and Steve Perry.

Speaking of Meatloaf. You wrote “Mystery of the Blood Red Rose” with him in mind.

Absolutely, yeah. It seemed like there was a big chance to work with him on that track. The management said they loved the track, they listened to it, and they said, “Okay, we’re going to suggest this to Meatloaf.” At some point, for some reason, they said, “Oh no, we have different plans.” Meatloaf didn’t even hear the track. I guess it was the management first being very open-minded, and then just … Not thinking it was a great idea. What can you do? I had a great track, I had a great Meatloaf track, but I was quite Meatloaf-less!(Laughs)

But it came out great either way.

I think so, thank you.

Avantasia has a show coming up in April in New York City. Fans are excited here in New York. We love Edguy and Avantasia. This show might be over 3 hours long. If I may ask how do you prepare vocally? I can just imagine that singing for 3 or 4 hours can take a toll on your voice.

Absolutely, it does. But I’m not the only singer. We’re going to come with eight singers. We can back each other up, and everybody is singing … Not an equal amount. I’m probably singing the biggest amount, but still, it’s not very, very strained for the voice in Avantasia tours because you always have those little breaks, and they kind of prevent you from over straining your voice. You just do a song, and then you do a verse, and then you have a one minute break, and then you do another chorus, and then one minute break. That way, you never really tire your voice, you never burn it out.

What is always helpful is that you know, psychologically, that even in case you would be hoarse for one show, you could just do three songs less and have someone else fill in. That’s what we had to do on the last tour in Quebec, Canada. We were in French Canada, and I was having a real, real bad flu. This was probably the worst flu I’ve ever had in my entire life, this was the proper flu. Not just a cold and fever, but it was an infection. I was taken to the hospital, and I could barely walk. Even the tour manager said, he had never seen anything like that before. Because I could barely speak, I was too tired to speak, and I had a fever, very high fever. They took me to the hospital; they X-rayed my lungs and everything.

Oh wow. That sounds terrible. Did you have to cancel the show?

It was, they said I was in bad shape. And no, we were about to cancel the tour, the show, and I said, “I don’t want to do it. I’m not flying all of these miles to Canada to cancel the show! Especially given the fact we’re 7 singers tonight. I will go on, I will do the best I can, but they’ve got to back me up, and they will back me up.” And Michael Kiske and Eric Martin and Bob Catley, they were all so supportive. They said, “Okay. We went through the songs.” I was given some medication by the doctor that made me really feel dizzy. I mean, dizzy is probably not the right expression, I felt like I was … I was completely gone.

Oh my!

Yeah, I was blacked out up to the eyeballs. And they gave me, the doctor gave me drugs, and he said … The doctor was really funny back then. He was going, “My friend, you’re very sick. I can make you go out on that stage, but you will definitely feel it even in 3 months. Because these drugs will make you feel better, but you aren’t better. You just feel better for tonight. You will be coughing 3 months from now.” I said, “Okay, but if we can make the show that way, I will do it.” He said, “I wouldn’t do it to everybody, but in your shape, I can do that. I think my conscience allows me to do, to give those kinds of things to you in your shape.” When he gave me the drugs, it was wonderful. Apparently, I was a really happy person that night, everybody said. I don’t recall much of it, but the others backed me up. They also helped me psychologically to know that others are there who could take passages of mine. So, long story short, psychologically, I’m not afraid of the tour because we’re so many singers. Even if one or two are really sick, we can make the show.

That must have been very awful but the show must go on.

You just do what you can on tour. Don’t talk much, warm up, and wear a scarf.

Some singers they drink hot tea. How do you warm up and do you have a vocal coach?

I do all kinds of weird things. I sometimes do it, you know. Michael Kiske, he does it all the time, you know. He will get to the venue two hours before the show to just warm up. He’s got his ukulele, and he’s going to sing Elvis for two hours. We say, “Hey, Michael, the show has not begun yet! Take it easy!” He’s warming up all the time, he’s warming up 24/7. It’s really great. I don’t do it really, much. I do vocal exercises before I go on. I don’t really like tea, you know. Red wine does the thing for me, but that’s more a psychological thing. Honestly speaking, the red wine doesn’t do anything good for the voice. That’s just a rumor.

It’s good for your heart, that’s what they say.

Yeah, you know, it’s an excuse for all those opera singers, all those great, old opera singers to get shitfaced before they go on. They just say, “Oh, red wine is good for your voice.” Yeah, of course. You just want to get drunk, you mean person! I don’t believe red wine does anything for the voice, in particular. I just simply, I don’t have any tricks. I just warm up, go out, and hope for the best.

Thank you for your time I know you have a busy schedule. See you in the spring!

Thank you very much. We cannot wait to come back to the US.

About Author

I was born and raised in Donetsk, Ukraine and immigrated to NYC when I was eight years old. My passion for photography stems from my love of heavy metal and hard rock as well as my concert experiences. I was exposed to this music at an early age and it has been a big part of my life into adulthood. It is very rewarding and exciting to capture the small moments that musicians have on stage and get caught up in all the action in the mosh pit and take photos from that vantage point. When I am not behind my camera, I can be found teaching preschool. My love of music and photography allows me to create and plan meaningful activities for my students. I was very young when I discovered my passion and my goal is to help do the same for my students.