On October 21 German Metal Opera giants Avantasia released their ninth studio album A Paranormal Evening with The Moonflower Society. Following on with the vision and themes of their 2019 album Moonglow and continuing a project spanning over twenty years. I had the privilege of speaking to Tobias Sammet, the brainchild behind it about his creative process, insights and how the pandemic shaped his recent work.
Happy release day for last week! You have mentioned that this album was a slow burn for you, essentially dedicating the last two and a half years to its production- how does it feel to have it out in the world now and has its reception been everything you hoped for?
Well, being a megalomaniac the reception is never as good as I hope (laughs) no seriously, I’m happy with the reaction, I think fans really appreciate it and that’s the most important thing, reviews are pretty good!
I would say it’s averagely an eight out of ten, I don’t believe in numbers with music I don’t paint by numbers and I don’t play by numbers and I don’t play for numbers, so it is what it is. I know you probably think differently, journalists always think differently and they have to somehow describe how much they like or hate an album, but numbers don’t really work I mean, I don’t know if seven suns out of seven suns is a ten out of ten or a nine out of ten or if it’s half a score better than a previous album somewhere in time… I don’t know about those things, I’m happy I did them all and I love them all… so long story short I’m happy with the reaction, I’m happy with fans’ reactions and yeah, I’m happy that the album finally is out.
When an album comes out it’s always a bit, in a way it sometimes isn’t easy when people begin to write (about) it because it seems like, it feels like you’re leaving it all by itself, you abandon your baby you know that’s worthy of protection, then all of a sudden you leave it, you throw it to the lions and say “ok, what do you think about it? Tear it to pieces” that’s something I think, I feel like I’m it’s father and I wanna protect it like a father (laughs) that’s my natural urge.
The album is a follow on from your previous 2019 release Moonglow and is the second album in the saga, which to me is essentially a dark and whimsical fairy tale. For the readers that are new to your work can you tell us what the story is about and how it has developed in A Paranormal Evening?
It is a successor, I have to say but it’s not that the album would not work on it’s own. I think it’s just the logical next step, I didn’t approach it like writing a novel or a musical with a plot that I had to stick to because I got fed up with the plot concept because you have to take eighty percent of your vocals you have to waste on explaining things to the listener, you’re more a service provider than a poet or- I don’t want to call myself a poet but- an artist and I really want to write stuff to get things off my chest and paint my own little landscapes.
I usually have a skeleton of a plot in the back of my head that gives me the right visuals, that gives me the right setting to place my little stories and individual lyrics in, but I don’t want to use it as a ball and chain and that’s why I would rather consider the album to be a theme album, a thematic album with eleven individual scenes and pictures and stories and poems set in the same fantastic world. I approach the album like its predecessor it deals with not fitting in, with not being able to live up to expectations, with having to withdraw to your own world to be at peace with yourself and at peace with your environment. That’s what the album deals with in a way and I approach the album like the visage of a lonely creature to a magic theatre, whose protagonists would open up a different world and let you into and invite you or drag you into a fantastic world and it’s escapism on one hand but at the same time it’s not like getting away from or running away from the real world but it’s rather withdrawing to an extension of the real world, and that’s how I see imagination, to be an extension of the real world where I am safe from the Elders of all the assholes of the day world out there, but it’s still just an extension, it’s another leg of my everyday reality and that’s how I approached the album that gave me a way to paint eleven individual scenes and short stories that would also give me the chance to get things off my chest and put a lot of myself in there and use the writing not just as poetry and escapism for the listener, I would also seize it as a way to express my feelings and get things off my chest so it’s self therapy in a way.
You have mentioned that while creating this album you had some “quirky encounters with your muses” can you elaborate on that and how these encounters influenced your work?
I just tried to find a metaphor and a picture for what my creative work is based on and what it looks like. I feel like, especially when you’ve worked as much as I’ve worked with in the past twenty years, you’re succumbing to a pace that is not always good for you and everything becomes natural, it’s just like you don’t even realise how you’re on a treadmill and to me it became more and more precious to be able to lock the studio door behind me especially when COVID struck and the whole world came apart or to a halt if you like. I was allowed to not function anymore and that gave me so much freedom it was just like I could breathe again.
That sounds very wrong I know because I know what COVID did to the world and the economy and everything, I don’t want to say there is any blessing in the whole thing but to me it was like for the first time in my life I knew if I would take things a bit slower, to work a bit slower, I would not be the scapegoat, I would not be held accountable for it. People would say ok it’s the way of the world so I was out of the line of fire and I could breathe and I locked the studio door behind me and I started to become creative and at night I opened up like a Moonflower. I was just referring to all these inspirations and all these ideas and all these little nuances that all of a sudden I could feel again. Those little aspects of being creative, those things, I try to give those moments and inspirations and those muses as I call them, the whole creative spirit, I tried to make them, to name them as entities and as a sum of entities I named them the Moonflower Society. That was a beautiful picture I thought, so it’s not that I had this incident, I’m sorry to disappoint you, it was not like there were things falling out of my shelf (chuckles) and I have invisible friends running around opening doors without anybody touching it and closing it again and knocking on the window. None of that happened, you’ll have to go to King Diamond and Ritchie Blackmore for those stories (laughs)
There was a hiatus before Moonglow and a period after Ghostlights where you weren’t certain you would continue with Avantasia- so I’m assuming that’s what inspired you to continue the project and write this particular saga as you call them, would you say that’s why you call this project your most personal one so far because of the circumstances in which you found yourself creating it?
Yeah absolutely. I had just built a studio before the pandemic hit, I had built a studio before Moonglow I have to say but it was rebuilt and I had a company do a lot of stuff in there and it was modified sonically. It’s the perfect studio, it’s got international mastering stand outs for rock music, it’s really a very good place and it’s also very cosy and I was so happy to be able to work like that during the pandemic and with all the time on my hands. I could reconnect with the joy of playing music in every aspect. I was creating demos from scratch, and I finished those demos whereas in the past I would have had a song idea, I would have put the song together very briefly, very roughly and I would say ok there is eight bars of this then it’s four bars of that, then I would go to Sascha (Paeth) and we would arrange the stuff together and bring it in to shape.
This time I brought everything myself into shape because I was locked in and I had all the time in the world, so I made demos from start to finish and created whole songs that some of them, really similar, the demos are really similar to what you find here on the album. Of course without proper guitars or drums but the song was absolutely there and on the demo you could hear oh yeah, that’s that song. I was responsible for a lot of stuff myself and I reconnected to the joy of singing also in the studio, trying out different pre-amplifiers, different compressors, effects and stuff, microphones. It was very basic, I did a lot of stuff myself and I was reconnecting to a lot of the tiny details again, that I wouldn’t have had time for in the past, that I would have devolved onto others in the past. This time a lot of it is my personal work and also the lyrics, they’ve always been personal but those lyrics are really not beating around the bush, Scars and Arabesque those songs say a lot about what I had to get off my chest in between the fantastic setting I have to say, but there is a lot of stuff going on, a lot of expectations I had to deal with but yeah it’s a very very personal album.
Because it’s such a deeply personal project I just want to touch on the appearances because you’ve got a lot of particularly vocal heavyweights such as Floor Jansen, Geoff Tate, Eric Martin just to name a few, so what’s it like collaborating with those artists because I mean vocalists notoriously have such enormous energy and presence, and when you’re pulling them into such a personal project and you have a very specific vision, is there a lot of negotiation and compromise that goes along with those collaborations or does it kind of flow quite easily?
It flows absolutely easily and I don’t know why, I never analysed it, I never thought that this could be different because it never has been different, it has always easy I mean most of the time I have a very clear vision of what I want to do, but I’m absolutely aware that I’m working with rock royalty and heavy metal royalty and the best of the best. These singers are the best in their respective fields, and they know exactly how it works and what to do and how they do it. Of course, I’m ready to let them put their personality in there but so far I think every single recording that I got back from them or that they did in the studio while I was there on all records of Avantasia was always exactly what I had in mind so I either have a very very good imagination when I make demos for them, so that they think oh yeah that’s exactly what I would do, or it’s coincidence.
It’s really funny because Geoff- I mean- it has something to do also with me being a fan. For example Geoff Tate or Michael Kiske those voices I’ve listened to since I was twelve years old and they are in my DNA and when I sing I can imagine exactly what they would do because I have not studied their work, I have felt and perceived their work. It’s really funny because Geoff sometimes thinks that’s so mean but yeah (he will) do it exactly like that because that’s (him) Sometimes on stage when we sing together he smiles at me at certain nuances and you can sense he’s thinking “Toby Toby Toby that’s exactly… you stole this line from this record and you stole this nuance and this phrasing from that record” because he says that he can feel it’s his DNA and I adapted to it so it’s never been a problem. I remember, it was really funny when we had on one of the previous albums, The Seduction of Decay, originally it was a track that resembled a heavy metal version of Black Dog from Led Zepplin and I thought it was great to have it sung like this in a raspy voice (sings) “it ain’t the far cry that it seemed” and I thought it was this loose Robert Plant kind of singing, then all of a sudden I thought no that would be too obvious and I said what if we do (sings theatrically) “it ain’t the far cry that it seemed, in just a wink we’d come for you” and I immediately knew that has to be Geoff and then once that name was there in letters and visibly over my head while I had the inspiration, it became a Geoff song and I envisioned it exactly like that and I heard Geoff sing the song, even before Geoff knew who I was (laughs) So there has never been a problem with guest contributions, and of course as I said I’m aware that their personalities (are) very important also because they are the best of the best.
Your site describes the third single Misplaced among the Angels as a “timeless untrendy, old-school power ballad”- an interesting choice of words! Do you think the theatrics and flamboyance of your music is the defining element that initially draws in such a wide audience?
I’m not sure, of course it’s part of the show like in Queen, one band that I truly enjoy, Queen always had the theatrics I think it was part of it but I think the bells and whistles wouldn’t do anything if the songs were not good and I want to believe that the core of, or the essence of Avantasia and of any band should be the quality of the music, the basics the good hook line. Sometimes people are blinded by the bells and whistles and all the show effects surrounding the whole thing, but I think the most important part are the harmonies and melodies and of course the way it’s realised I mean of course it has to be sung by great voices and everything, that’s a necessity. The key I think is to be good songs and memorable melodies, harmonies that are emotional, that move you.
That’s at least the way I perceive it. A good example is Jim Steinman wrote a couple of songs that he recorded himself that he wrote for a band called Pandora’s Box, they recorded and those same songs were recorded partly by Meatloaf, it’s three completely different ball games in terms of how they are realised- one is an all girl band with female voices, one is Meatloaf who is the definition of male theatrical voice in a way and one version was recorded by Jim Steinman and Jim sang it himself with a kind of ok voice. All three versions work because they are great songs and I think they are all great singers and turned the songs into a different direction but still the basic is the great song. In Avantasia I am fortunate to have those great singers sing hopefully great songs and I think that’s more important than you know the fireworks and the bells and whistles, that’s just the icing on the cake.
I know that asking you what your personal favourite track on the album would be like asking you to pick a favourite child so instead I would like to ask you which track is the most deeply emotional for you?
There is a couple of them. I think Arabesque and Scars, I consider those tracks to be one track even though that may sound weird but thematically they both describe a lot about my mental setting in the past years that I had to reflect on to even realise what I was doing to myself in those years where I was almost collapsing under expectations, not by journalists and which songs should be arranged which way but in general with those two bands Edguy, Avantasia and delivering album by album by album, tour tour tour, faster faster faster and people getting angry at me for not doing an Edguy album in time- not my band mates, don’t get me wrong but some fans making weird accusations like oh he’s just doing it for the money, it was like why doesn’t anybody care about what I want to do, why don’t they all leave me alone and accept what I want to do, I don’t owe anything to anybody, I released seventeen, eighteen albums back then and I’ve paid my dues leave me alone. So I think with Arabesque and Scars, I think I processed that hurt and it was very relieving and now it’s off my chest and I’ve really said that, and that is why those songs… they are fantastic journeys and they are fantastic landscapes those songs, and they can be seen as just fantasy songs with a fairy tale-ish approach but still they have something underneath.
Speaking of being a work horse, have you got any plans to tour internationally with A Paranormal Evening? Is that something that might be on the cards for you?
We are going to play shows with it, I’m not sure this is going to be called a tour because these days it’s pretty difficult to set things up and predict if something is going to be economically feasible. There are definitely plans there are already shows set up, we’re going to go to South America in April, we’re going to play some European shows and I’m sure we’re going to play some shows… we’re going to go to Asia and I hope, I hope and there is talk about it to extend our Asian trip to a bit further down South East, and it doesn’t look to bad so let’s cross our fingers that we are going to make it to Australia.
Fantastic. So just lastly, Avantasia initially was meant to be a two studio album project but has now become a thirteen year, nine album, multiple world tour epic journey through many fantasy worlds. Where do you see it going from here keeping in mind obviously the context in which this album was written was a lot different to previous projects so is it something you are going to continue on with?
I think so, I don’t see a reason why this should not happen, of course the music business is in dire straits and it’s also a matter of will I be granted the budget that I need too, at least I mean, I don’t have to make much profit but I want to be able to produce without making compromises and downsizing it and reducing the quality so I have no idea. I will do whatever I think is right, I don’t even know what I’m going to have for dinner tonight, so I certainly don’t know which album I’m going to release in two years. Right now, I’m just enjoying the ride, I’m happy I’ve got the album out I’m happy I was allowed to play shows again this year. I just enjoy the ride and I’m sure there will be another album, I mean I’ve written eleven or twelve new songs already for a future album
So creatively you still have that steam?
Absolutely! It’s not really like I want to show something or I need to release it necessarily. I’m just so happy to have found that creative outlet to let off steam and it’s self therapeutic in a way, I enjoy doing it. That’s the reason why I’m doing it, I enjoy doing it.
For a cathartic exercise your latest album is definitely a treat and it’s been a real treat talking to you as well Tobias thank you so much for your time. I really do hope it’s a good ride for you from here after getting your album out and hopefully we can see you in Australia for a show or two.
I really hope so too, thank you!
Interview By Rebecca Scheucher