Interviewed by Thomas Schwarzkopf (Journalist/Writer/Contributor) Myglobalmind Webzine
The German cult-band Fair Warning released their incredible new album “Sundancer” some days ago. This should be reason enough to ask guitar-player Helge Engelke some questions about Fair Warnings new activities. Be ready for a very detailed interview with one of the finest guitarists from Germany.
Hello Helge, great to talk to you. What’s happening these days?
Helge: All the things which go along with promoting the new album, interviews, mailers and so on.
The band will start rehearsing soon and that needs preparation as well.
You just released the new Fair Warning album „Sundancer“ and most people of the press (me too) and fans think this is the best album Fair Warning have ever made. I remember, reviews of the previous albums were more mixed. So what do you think is different or even better this time?
Helge: Thank you! Yes, indeed this is the best record we’ve ever done. All came together perfectly. All the reviews are really great, in average they mark 7000 out of 100 points. Personally I am very content with the guitar parts, I mean I could have done better, but if I had, most likely my hands would have fallen off.
Ok, so much for promotion. That’s what you are supposed to say when you’re doing an interview for your new record.
But actually I can’t say that truthfully. An honest answer would be: I don’t know. Of course we tried to make the best album we possibly could do, but that you do every time. The process of making the album was not too different from the ones before. If it is better than the ones before, only time will tell. My estimation would be: There will be some songs to stand the test of time, others will fail.
I cannot base my rating on reviews , because many, many times it happens something like this: There is this other band, German too, I guess the name is “Horst”. They recently released a record. I listened to it. I did not like it at all. “What a waste of space” I thought. Now SPV sends me some reviews. I read the first one and it says “Great record, well done”, fine so far, I keep reading on to the end, the verdict: “This is really and indeed a great record, it could be put in line with the new release of “Horst” “ Oh, come on give me a break…
The cover artwork of „Sundancer“ relies on „Rainmaker“ from 1995. Why you guys wanted to build that bridge to this particular record? What is the title „Sundancer“ all about?
Helge: The intention was having a good title, not necessarily building a bridge to previous records.
We had outbreaks of uncontrolled creativity with titles before, like calling our first one „Fair Warning“, a live album “Live in Japan“, our fourth album „Four“.
This time we had a long list of contenders rated from “quite nice” to “ok, would do”, but we all know what that means. So we sat together thinking of album titles we really liked. It boiled down to “Rainmaker” and “Go”. Suddenly there was the suggestion of “Sundancer” and we all liked it immediately.
Now you might want to think a while of the things a sundancer does. Sacrifice for the community to prosper and all of that. If our music could do just a tiny bit of that, fine, sufficient. Therefore the title seems to be appropriate to me. Ok, we might have called it “Have fun with it”, but I don’t think it would have been likely to be accepted by the majority of the band.
Obviously the titles “Sundancer” and “Rainmaker” are cut from the same cloth which made us agree to the similarities in the artwork.
Musically there was no intention whatsoever to connect the new album with “Rainmaker”.
For a start it would have been hard, for we wrote and recorded most of the album before choosing a title.
For my part I wouldn’t have expected that now some reviewers find some, or all of the songs bearing a, not existing, likeness to the songs of “Rainmaker”.
It took you four years to record a new album. What happened in the meantime?
Helge: Aura, our latest studio album, was released in 2009. Two of our concerts of the following tour were filmed for a DVD. A festival appearance at “Loudpark” and an entire show in Tokyo of the tour of 2010. When we saw the material filmed in Tokyo we had to find out that most of the cameramen had a rather peculiar affinity for feet, cables, backsides of speaker cabinets and the colour black in general. After perishing several editors, weeks and month of nasty swearing we finally managed to come up with something worth releasing. Next there was a “best of” compilation our record company wanted to release, which took a bit of work too. We started working on “Sundancer” in autumn of 2011 and were finished by February of 2013. Indeed a long time but compared to some past albums it was, believe it or not, rather quick
Please tell us something about the songwriting process. Was there something special this time?
Helge: Three of the songs on “Sundancer” we wrote together. We never did it before but it turned out to be a nice experience resulting in good songs. The rest of the songs are written by Ule or me like on all the previous albums.
„Hit And Run“ was the first song you could listen to on soundcloud. Is this one some kind of single from „Sundancer“? What about a music video?
Helge: It was the choice of Spv to introduce the new record with this song online. In case it was meant as “some kind of single” I guess they would have released a single. There were plans for a video but our record company said “we have a better idea”. Since this is not done yet and needs a bit of planning I’d rather refrain from naming details. Sorry for the lukewarm answer, but sometimes it is better waiting with announcements until it is certain things will happen
Which song on “Sundancer” represents the whole album in the best way? Which song is the most important one for you?
Helge: This question I cannot answer. The concept of “most important song”, “leader track” or however you might want to call it, is alien to me. From a musicians point of view you record an album because you want all the songs to be heard. Not dwarfing 90% of the songs by selecting the one and only to rule them all. Further it is impossible to do the Cinderella sorting of the lentils when you worked for one and a half year on an album trying to give every song the best you could.
When I take a look at the latest Fair Warning releases I notice that you’ve changed your label with each album. „Brothers Keepers“at Frontiers Records, „Aura“ at Metal Heaven and now „Sundancer“ on SPV. Why did you switch so often? What felt wrong?
Helge: Yes, before Frontiers we were signed to Gun/Bmg and yet before to Wea.
What felt wrong? Hmm, that is one of the difficult ones. First there is this paragraph in record contracts that says “about this you keep your mouth shut” and in case you don’t get along well there is another paragraph saying ” in this case you shut up twice”.
Let’s say we are a difficult band to deal with. We find it considerably hard to agree on conditions like “ok, we charge you 15% package deduction on downloads”, “You have a double DVD filmed, great performance, great audience eh? Nah, we prefer waiting for the next studio album” or “we have a worldwide deal but we are releasing in some countries only” or “We own the rights of your recordings, not available anymore?, bad luck guys, the records rest safely in our, er, wait… let’s see… where was it… ah, yes cellars I believe”. These are only a few examples.
If you take into consideration that we are with SPV for the 3rd release in a row now it seems to have changed. For our Japanese record company it is the 6th or 7th release in a row.
The first three Fair Warning albums are classics in the eyes of many melodic hard rock fans, but sadly you haven’t had a big breakthrough in Europe and America, yet. But you guys are some kind of superstars in Japan … so why your music is so big in Japan? What is different to fans in the rest of the world and why is it so hard to be successful in other countries?
Helge: Oh dear, the inevitable question we are being asked in each and every interview.
Fair enough let the truth be told. In the most remote and inaccessible part of the highest Japanese mountains there is a secret and hidden order of monks engaged in, well, rather monkish things, like finding truth and stuff. The more comprehensible part of their doings deals with reincarnation. According to their infinite wisdom, CC (the drummer guy) is the 127th or 128th reincarnation of one of the first Japanese emperors who reigned before the counting of time had begun. Which one exactly is yet to be discovered. All of this is hidden, concealed and secret to an extend that not even CC himself nor any Japanese know about it. But hey, you know a deity when you see one, don’t you?
It was just me who, due to fortunate circumstances, found an article in a local paper of the tiniest of all the villages in the afore mentioned mountains, put it into the Google translator and was rewarded not only with poetry that comes with translations like that, but as well with the definite answer to THE question concerning Fair Warning.
The answer consisting of fewer words, nevertheless being as esoteric as the one before, would be:
What can you tell us about tour plans of Fair Warning? Will there be a headliner tour or maybe shows as support act?
Helge: We are working on it, but at the moment the only fixed dates are for Japan.
Most people know that Fair Warning is some kind of “product” or “development” of the 80’s melodic rock band ZENO. What do you still associate with the Zeno-era?
Helge: Zeno was simply the band some of us played in before. Looking back it could be considered as a catalyst for Fair Warning coming together. I was involved in the second Zeno album in the 90’s after we released “Rainmaker” with Fair Warning and by now we have a twenty odd years long history of FW.
Seen from the inside it is a bit awkward to consider FW as a product of Zeno. Personally I associate some good songs with Zeno.
Who influenced you as a guitar player?
Helge: That changed over the years and hasn’t stopped yet. It is common to answer this question with a long list of big names – don’t worry I will do too, but you tend to forget to name the persons who brought you on the way.
When I started I liked music, not necessarily guitar players. It was not like I saw a certain guitarist and said “wow, this I wanna do”. The first thing that hit me was “whole lotta love” by Led Zeppelin. So I have to name Jimmy Page. I was not interested in the solo back then. Just the energy of the riff and the song. Next came Ritchie Blackmore with Rainbow, a product or a development of Deep Purple of whom I only heard later. That was the first big concert I saw and it got me interested more in the “dedidedeeddeely” thing. And of course, being a native of Hannover – which not only provided England with kings for centuries but a few years later produced some fine guitarists -, there was no way avoiding Michael Schenker and Uli Roth. The latter had a big impact on me with his band Electric Sun. Obviously, by that time I already was more interested in the guitar than, for example, in singing.
So I took lessons from another local guitarist answering to the name of Peter Ladwig. Him I asked to show me the flashy stuff Uli did but that was not his cup of tea. Instead he played and showed me guitarists I hadn’t heard of before, like Hendrix, Clapton, Leslie West or Joe Walsh, the generation before Uli and Michael Schenker. At that time I found some of the players he suggested rather boring, but had to realise later that I was quite an ignorant idiot and … wait here we have to discuss something else. Sometimes the English language should be enriched by some foreign words, like “Rucksack” or “Zeitgeist”. The word I am missing and definitely should be added to the English thesaurus is “Banause”.
Where was I?Yep, that’s what I was a Banause. But thanks to my teacher that got cured a bit. Well, not enough. I visited the music university in Hamburg for a while, not for classical music though, and there was a guitar teacher who seriously tried to tell me studying funk guitarist would be a good idea. Funk? Oh come on, that are the guys who turn their guitars down and make these sounds you get when cutting your fingernails, right? Not quite right, I have to add Nile Rodgers to the list.
Rory Gallagher, Jeff Beck and Stevie Ray Vaughan I discovered by myself.
It still happens today that I hear a player and think “wow that guy can play”. Last time it happened hearing Derek Trucks. Anybody still awake? I guess I better stop here.
What do you do to create this unique guitar sound? I never heard someone playing guitar like you. When I hear this sound I exactly know it’s you!
Helge: Thanks for the nice words. Could I have an endless loop of this?
I have a quite clear vision of what I want to hear and just try to get close to it.
In the beginning I tried to copy other guitarists and their sound and always got annoyed when it didn’t sound exactly like them. Actually, when you want to sound like B.B. King it helps a lot being B.B. King. I had to learn to appreciate sounding like me.
You’ve also done three albums with the hard rock band Dreamtide. Can we expect a new Dreamtide album in the nearer future? How important are such “side projects” to you? What makes them special?
Helge: Dreamtide is a band which came into existence when Fair Warning stopped working for 5 years.
There have always been long times in between Fair Warning records.
After FW’s “Brothers Keeper” there was a break and I was doing the 3rd Dreamtide album.
The last years I was busy with Fair Warning and some other things. I am not really doing side projects.
Whatever I am doing at a certain moment I am doing full time. Now we just finished “Sundancer” and will tour. What comes next… I don’t know yet. Might be another Dreamtide album.
In music industry lots of trends come and go, but especially the melodic hard rock genre is celebrating some kind of revival since some years. A lot of new bands play this style now and also a lot of older cult bands produce new albums. Why is that? What makes this kind of music so timeless in your opinion?
Helge: During the interview I realised that you called Zeno “melodic rock”, Fair Warning “melodic hard rock” and Dreamtide “hard rock”. I always had difficulties relating to these terms. I perceive those terms as limiting. They were not around when we or Zeno started. When I started Dreamtide, yes they were around, much to my annoyance. Now there are classifications like triplemegaslayyourmotherdeathmetal or classic rock. No, nothing for me. I call it rock. As simple as that. What do you expect from a Banause? Is it coming back, was it ever gone? Styles develop, come, go, merge, evolve into something different, some die and some don’t, they just go home (like Elvis). I don’t think any styles comes back exactly as it was and I hope there is an audible difference in between our first record and our latest release.
And I do believe there is always room for a good song, no matter what style it might be.
Any message to your fans out there?
Helge: Stop stealing my music you bastards, buy it. Was that politically incorrect? Doesn’t matter political correctness sucks. Oh, and a BIG thank you to all those who support us.
Helge, thanks for talking. Good luck with all your activities!
Helge: Thank you!