UNISONIC – Never Too Late
The brainchild of ex-Helloween vocalist Michael Kiske and Pink Cream 69 bassist Dennis Ward, Unisonic formed in November 2009 following a meeting between the two as well as ex-Pink Cream 69 drummer Kosta Zafiriou. The trio had previously cut the full-length albums Place Vendome (October 2005) and Streets Of Fire (February 2009) for Italian record label Frontiers Records as members of Place Vendome, an AOR project founded by label president Serafino Perugino.
“I knew that he was capable of producing well, and arranging songs and stuff – he had lots of skills,” enthuses Michael Kiske, vocalist and co-founder of Unisonic. “We were fooling around via email that we should do something together, but it didn’t happen until we had a meeting. Kosta was approaching me basically from the management side saying ‘We don’t think you’ve been properly managed in the past couple of years,’ which was very true. I did not have any management. I was managed by Rod Smallwood for a long time, which is a guy I really like. The reason why we didn’t work together anymore was not because of personal things or whatever, but because he just didn’t know how to handle me. I wasn’t managed by them from 1998 onwards or something like that, and from that end it was very true. I was not managed, and then that thing of making a real band again came up.
“Dennis and me immediately had Mandy Meyer (ex-Krokus) in mind; he knew him from I don’t know where, but he just knew him, liked him, and thought he was just a perfect guitar player. I think that was really true because Mandy is just a very sweet person, big-hearted, very gifted, and easy to be with, and that is always good in a band. That was that four-piece band, and we started to write some songs and even did a little bit of live playing. We played like two festivals in 2010; we played Sweden Rock and Masters Of Rock, mainly Place Vendome material and just a couple of tracks from Unisonic because we were just not ready then. We were writing but it was going slow, so in 2010 I personally started to think of another guitar player. I thought we needed another creative force – another songwriter – because it was just going too slow, but at that time I was not thinking of Kai for some reason. I didn’t think he would be interested.
“I also have a good relationship with Kai, and not many know that. Even when he left the band we were still pretty okay. We didn’t hang out every night or whatever, and we didn’t do anything together musically apart from him helping me out with my first solo record (Instant Clarity, August 1996) together with Adrian Smith (Iron Maiden guitarist) and me singing on the fourth Gamma Ray record (Land Of The Free, May 1995). We didn’t do much, but we were okay. We liked each other and when we saw each other there was always a good vibe going on, but we were not thinking about doing something together until we were onstage together with Avantasia in 2010. Before Kai I had a friend of mine in mind as a guitar player (Sandro Giampietro); a very strong individual, a great musician, and a guy who’s helped me out on a couple of records I’ve done in the past, but I think Kosta was really scared of him (laughs). He’s some kind of a person; he’s very different, very original, very funny, very friendly, but different. Kosta was a little bit scared of him so that didn’t happen, but when I was onstage with Kai on the Avantasia tour it brought us to different countries.
“We played a show in Tokyo, we played one show in Mexico, one in Brazil, one in Argentina, and we played Sweden, Switzerland, and Germany of course. It was a lot of travelling, but there was just a very, very nice chemistry going on between me and Kai which I had almost forgotten about. We started talking backstage ‘We should do something together again because it just feels right’ and we just didn’t know how, but at that time again Unisonic just didn’t come up.
“I don’t know why, but after awhile when we found out we don’t wanna do another project Kai made it very clear if we wanted to do something we gotta do one real thing. He suggested me joining Gamma Ray which I didn’t really wanna do, because I didn’t wanna join a band with a 20-year history. You always piss someone off, and to a certain extent it’s also a bit too much for me is Gamma Ray. I like some of the material, but other material is just a bit too heavy for me to a certain extent. One of the guys said ‘We still have just one guitar player in Unisonic,’ and then it clicked for me. I thought ‘That’s it’ because Kai’s presence adds that extra edge – that extraordinariness – to Unisonic that I thought was missing. Now he’s in the band and we started working on that first record, he’s proving me right. He fits into the band very well.”
Unisonic’s moniker surfaced through the amalgamation of two potential names. “If you ever try to make a band and you try to find a name, you know how painful it is to find a decent name everybody is happy with,” the frontman laments. “We had a lot of stupid names and we had okay names, and we even had some stupid names which everybody else liked which was scary (laughs). It’s just the way it is sometimes though. I thought we would never find a name, but then in the end we ended up with two names; one was something Unison, and the other one was Sonic blah blah blah. I’ve forgotten about the other half of them, and Kosta was just putting both parts of it together. It made it Unisonic, and I really liked that – I thought that was great.
“It has a nice meaning, being sonic in unison or universally sonic. It doesn’t sound overblown, and it’s hard to put in a box. Judging by the band’s name, you cannot say if it is rock or pop or metal or whatever. I really like that name and I also like the logo very much, but it took awhile to get there. When that name came up though I was mainly the only one that was totally convinced that this was a good name, but after awhile everybody was and the same with the logo when the guy made that logo. He’s also done Backstreet Boys logos and things like that so he’s a pretty famous guy who did the logo, and I loved it right away. I thought it looked really great.”
Studio projects have consumed much of Michael’s time of late, something the German is fed up of, instead wishing to hit the live circuit. “That’s a good way of putting it,” he agrees. “I had a break from live performances for almost 17 years, and I was pretty fed up with everything to be honest. For the first number of years I was totally frustrated and I hated everything because of just bad experiences, and too many bad experiences just summed up one big ‘Leave me alone.’ After awhile I got better though, and Place Vendome and Avantasia got me into that type of music slowly again. Yes, I was very fed up with just doing studio things and just doing vocals for records and whatever. Even doing solo records, even though it’s a great thing to do. You learn a lot, but a band is just a whole different world.”
Given the Great Recession that has blighted the music industry since the late 2000s, it’s theoretically more difficult to organise live performances nowadays. “Well, I don’t know,” the singer muses. “I’m not confronted with everything that’s connected with the business side these days, but it feels pretty much the same right now. I don’t know if I’ll say the same thing in two years but so far there’s a lot of interest, especially now that Kai and me are back together. That has created interest. We’ll have to see what happens, but at the moment we didn’t plan to overkill live playing anyway. We wanna do that very controlled and not overkill it, but so far so good. We’ll just see what happens.”
Gamma Ray mainman Kai Hansen – also formerly of Helloween – as well as Dennis are Unisonic’s key songwriters. “When I write songs, they’re usually very different to what Kai writes,” Michael reckons. “He really is a metal and rock songwriter whereas I’m just a songwriter. I just write melodies; I think it works best when I keep it very simple with acoustic instruments or whatever, more like a singer / songwriter kind of approach to it than hard rock or whatever. Some of my stuff I bring to the rehearsal room and play to them you can make a rock song out of and some you can’t, and whatever works we will do with Unisonic. Kai and Dennis are the key songwriters when it comes to that though, and then comes Mandy who also has great ideas here and there. Then there’s me if I have an idea that fits.”
The swansong cut on Unisonic’s inaugural self-titled record, ‘No One Ever Sees Me’ was composed by the co-founder. “You can see ‘No One Ever Sees Me’ is very different,” he feels. “They all liked it, and Dennis simplified it. I had it much more complicated, but he just made it a simpler arrangement. I had all the parts, but he made it an arrangement which works. The rest is really from the other guys though. I had lyrics for another one which I think will just be a bonus track on some of the special editions or whatever, and it had my input of course here and there. Nothing worth mentioning in terms of credits or anything.
“It’s about a girl from countries where they’re more or less the property of man in a very inhuman way, Muslim countries or India where they have certain traditions that totally take the freedom of women and girls. The parents decide who they marry. Over here in Germany we have Turkish people; of course not all of them, but some of those hold onto their old traditions where the brothers kill their sister. Or the father kills the daughter because she’s together with a guy that she loves instead of with who they decided she should marry and stuff, which is pretty strange to me. I don’t get it. Traditions are fine to me and I’m okay with different mentalities and religions or whatever, but when it comes to inhumanity in that way it doesn’t work.
“I had the idea of that song and those lyrics when I was watching an Indian father on TV talking about a young daughter of his. He was old, and he said in words ‘I am going to decide who she’s gonna marry, and if she starts talking about love I’ll kill her with my own hands.’ He thought it was totally justified. I was kind of shocked how a father could talk about his own daughter like that. This cannot be love, this is not love. I don’t know what it is, but it’s weird. That’s what this song is about. It’s actually from the girl’s perspective in a way, and those girls are actually alright with it most of the time because they just grew up like that. They grew up not developing their own personality and their own identity, so they feel that it’s okay that they’re just property.”
Spiritual topics have been the subject of past material authored by Michael. “Certain spiritual things that I’ve dealt with have made their way into tracks, but I try to hide it sometimes by not being too precise,” he reveals. “When I’m writing about something it’s gotta be something that I care about, not sex, drugs, rock ’n’ roll, living fast, and dying young.”
At the time of writing, the frontman hasn’t fathered any children. “My brother lives not in the same house but in the same building as me; they have their own apartment, and they have a daughter,” he discloses. “Also my best friend has three children so I’m usually surrounded by children a lot, but I don’t have kids myself.”
That isn’t to say Michael has never fancied becoming a father, however. “I haven’t found the right girl, honestly,” he confesses. “I lived together for 23 years with a girl that ended three years ago and we were already in trouble before then but we’re still friends, really good friends. That’s why we didn’t end it, but I’m happy that we didn’t have kids because they would be suffering now. You need to have the right girl for that, and I was not lucky when it comes to that. I was not lucky.”
The tracks ‘Over The Rainbow’ and ‘The Morning After’ comprise the self-titled effort’s bonus material. “On the standard version there are 11 tracks,” the singer confirms. “There’s one extra track I think on the Asian special edition, and then another extra track on the European special edition. There’s one song called ‘Over The Rainbow’ which is a track from Kai; he had that one for awhile, and it’s a bit of a Scorpions, Jimi Hendrix type of song. A very slow song but beautiful, and with strong lyrics too. It turned out very nice. For some reason most record labels always want bonus tracks, so you have to sacrifice a track for certain countries. I don’t like that stuff at all, but it’s the way they want it. There’s not much you can do if they want it. The other track is called ‘The Morning After’, and that’s a straightforward melodic rock ’n’ roll song which could also be on a Place Vendome record. It’s written by Dennis, and it has his handwriting.”
Characteristically speaking, Michael surmises that Unisonic’s members are individually “very, very different people. Totally different. It’s interesting to see that it even works – in every way actually different – and that makes it all very colourful. I wrote something that you can hear is totally different to everyone else’s, and Kai’s songwriting is also very different to Dennis’ songwriting. For some reason though – which we’re very lucky for – Kai and Dennis work together very well. They’re really creative. They have a saying here in Germany… I don’t know if you have that over there in the UK but they throw balls to each other, like throwing a ball to the other person. This means that creatively they just work together very nicely; one has an idea, throws it over to the other one, and vice versa.
“They really nicely work together, and a good example is the track ‘Star Rider’. Dennis had that song for awhile; he had very nice verses and it was a great bridge, but the chorus wasn’t very strong. I thought it would never make the record because I only liked the verses and the bridges, and Kai heard that song and felt the same. He said ‘I don’t like the chorus. What if we do it like this?’ Within 20 seconds he wrote a chorus for it, and now it’s one of the strongest songs on the album in my opinion. That’s how they both work together very nicely.”
One specific location didn’t play host to recording sessions. “Dennis and Kosta have been playing since their teenage years,” the co-founder notes. “It was recorded in different locations; they recorded the drums I think in Belgium somewhere, and the guitars somewhere else. Obviously now in the internet ages where everybody has decent studio equipment in their home, you also do a bit of the stuff at home. You have the freedom of your time schedule. I personally don’t like it when people talk into my vocals, and I can really get angry when people try to do that. I think it’s wrong; if you as a singer don’t know how to feel the song – how to express the song – then don’t sing it. You have to fool around with it until you feel comfortable with it, and then you have to capture the moment.
“When I do a guest appearance on anything for example and they want me to do vocals, I make it very clear that I do vocals the way I want to. You sing a rough vocal so you know what the melody is like, and then I do my thing. I just don’t believe in the concept of a singer standing in the studio, and someone else telling the singer how to sing a song. If you’re insecure about a song and don’t know how to do it then maybe that helps, but if you have grown as an artist then you know what you’re doing anyway. Sometimes it’s good to play it to someone if you’re not sure yourself, and you’re not convinced about it but don’t know what to change. It sometimes helps if you play it to someone you trust, and ask ‘What do you think? What do you think about this performance? Does it convince you?’ Maybe that helps, but in general I know what I’m doing. I just need to practice a song, get a feel for it, and then I do a performance. Maybe it’s just one evening where I fool around with the song, or maybe I need two or three evenings. You don’t sing longer than two hours maybe anyway or maybe three if you take a lot of time, but usually it just takes awhile to get into the song and when I think it’s right it’s right.
“I’m not talking about creative things like melodies or whatever, because of course you gotta be open to changes and stuff like that. That’s just arrangement, but when it comes to performance you have to do your thing. You have to be yourself, and that’s why I’m doing vocals usually in my little home studio whenever I feel like that. If I feel like singing a song in the morning then I do that, and if it doesn’t tick then I do it in the evening. As long as you work and you get some stuff done, I think that works. I think Kai did a few overdubs in his own place. With the main guitarist Dennis who’s the producer of the album, some overdubs happened at home and stuff with just the mix of things. Before we started to record, of course we worked everything out as a band in the rehearsal room because that’s very necessary. We did that with every song until we were happy with it.”
Gut instinct plays a central role in recording vocal parts. “You always have to feel comfortable about it,” Michael reminds. “You should never think about what others want to hear just because that doesn’t work. You don’t know what anyone else wants to hear, and you shouldn’t become a puppet of anyone else. You just sing the song and as soon as it convinces you there’s a chance that it might convince others, but don’t try to please others because then you’re just a puppet. You’re not yourself, and you cannot have an identity in music in general like that. You have to convince yourself. You have to write a song and change it until you think it’s cool – it works – and that it’s fun to do. You then try to capture a good moment while you’re singing the song. That’s the best you can do.”
A music video was filmed for group anthem ‘Unisonic’ at a ballroom in Heidelberg, Germany. “It was quite expensive, actually,” the frontman observes. “We did it with a guy called Martin Häusler who’s done a lot of videos. Even for Britney Spears I think, which is a totally different world. He’s quite a known person when it comes to making artwork, and videos. We did it in a very old German building which is a few hundred years old, very beautiful, which has a theatre in it. It was mainly live performance, but also some other shots. It turned out pretty good, nice, and energetic.”
Each Unisonic member has outside group commitments, causing one to wonder how active as a live unit the quintet will be. “It will depend on how well Unisonic does,” Michael gauges. “If we really are a band that everybody wants to see live and we get all these touring offers in, then there’ll be more live playing. If there are less, it’ll be less. We all have other things that we also like to do, but the main priority is Unisonic at the moment. We will make time for Kai to be able to concentrate on Gamma Ray when he needs to, but it’ll depend on how it does; how the record sells, and how much people wanna see us. We’ll see what comes. As I said earlier, we don’t wanna overkill. I like to play live a lot because I haven’t been doing this for ages, but I also know that when you tour for a couple of weeks you quickly get tired. Even though now I’m hungry for it and I can’t wait to get to South America for instance to do those ten shows or however many we will do there, I also know that when you’re on the road for two or three months you get sick of it. It’s good if we don’t overkill it, which usually makes a band last longer.”
A live setlist will inevitably fail to consist of solely Unisonic tunes. “There’s not much to choose from because we only have one record, so we have to play pretty much the whole record if we can and if it works,” the singer explains. “Of course now that Kai and me are together in a band and we wrote so many tracks from the Keeper records (May 1987’s Keeper of the Seven Keys, Pt. 1 and September 1988’s Keeper of the Seven Keys, Pt. 2) for instance, we have to do a couple of those as a bonus. Of course we only play those that we’ve written. I saw Noel Gallagher for instance here in Hamburg recently (Sporthalle, March 8th), and of course at the end he was playing some of his biggest Oasis hits that he had written. Why shouldn’t he? It’s his music, and the same goes for me and Kai since we need some other material. We know that a lot of the fans will be happy when they hear them, and they will sound a lot like the originals since I sung them on the original records and Kai played the guitar on them. We always sound a lot like the original thing and we just have to do it, so there will be a couple of Helloween classics more towards the end I guess.”
Certain vintage Helloween staples are a particular joy to perform. “Some were a pain in the ass, even in the early days,” Michael remembers. “Even when I was 20 years old they were a pain in the ass to sing. I remember that, like ‘March Of Time’ for some reason. That one was always very difficult. I always loved singing ‘Eagle Fly Free’, which unfortunately was written by Michael Weikath (laughs). We won’t do that one, but that one was one of my all-time favourites because it was great to sing. Especially if you started a show with that track, you couldn’t really lose anymore. It was just great. ‘I Want Out’ we’ll do, and that one is nice to sing. We might do ‘I’m Alive’, probably ‘A Little Time’, and maybe even ‘Kids Of The Century’ (from March 1991’s Pink Bubbles Go Ape) even though that track was after Kai. It’s one of mine, and I think it’s a good number. We’ll see.”
Following recording sessions for the band’s self-titled affair, no other material has been composed. “There was not much time,” the co-founder cites. “I finished the last recording bits, and then right away had to jump into promotion. There were a lot of interview requests which we’re happy about, but it was a lot of work. We were just incredibly tired. For two weeks we were travelling Europe; we were in England, France, Spain and so on, and we did lots of interviews. TV, radio, and face-to-face interviews and whatever. It sucked a lot of the time. When you’ve just finished a record you don’t wanna get back into writing right away; you just wanna have a bit of time off, play live, get a bit of feedback, and then the songs come after awhile.”
A fifth Michael Kiske solo album is on the horizon, though. “I don’t really have a head for another solo record at the moment, but I have decided to do that with that friend I was talking about earlier – Sandro Giampietro,” he announces. “We want it to be a very live record and a fun recording. I have a whole lot of songs which Unisonic didn’t care much about which I will be doing with him. We will try to give it a nice, live acoustic feel. I’m pretty sure it’s gonna be a very cool record, not so much for metal audiences but some of them are quite open too. Others will probably ignore it, but that’s okay. I’m sure we’ll record it in the summer; when the summer’s over, I’m sure that’ll be done. I’m not sure when it will be released but I still have a contract running for that one, so I have to do that anyway. I’ll be doing that.”
Unisonic was released in Japan on March 21st, 2012 through Marquee / Avalon Records, and subsequently in Europe on the 30th through earMUSIC / Edel Group.
Interview published in March 2012. Unisonic promotional photographs by Martin Häusler. Live photographs taken at Loud Park 2011 and used with permission.