We recently had the honor of sitting down with the founders of Demons & Wizards, Jon Shaffer and vocalist Hansi Kürsch, before their Minneapolis show and first-ever U.S. tour.
Dana Dezenjte (long-time friend and heavy metal historian) and I head down the darkened stairs of the Skyway theater, being led to a waiting room by tour manager James, who informed us that we would have to wait for a few minutes.
As we sat there, we listened to the European and American roadies and tech discuss the hypocrisy of our American politics and Brexit.
After about 5 minutes, we were welcomed in by the legendary guitarist Jon Shaffer (most noted for his heavy metal band Iced Earth), and imaginative vocalist/songwriter, Hansi Kürsch (whose German power metal band Blind Guardian has influenced the entire Power Metal genre since its 1984 inception).
After a short discussion about the hurricane about to hit Florida, we sit down to discuss the night’s show, music. The pair imparted some advice and even revealed how they got their name.
MIM When is the new album coming out?
Jon Shaffer February of next year.
MIM You have a name for it?
JS Not yet, perhaps you can help us with it?
MIM Is it complete?
JS After Prog Power, we head to Tampa. Hansi still has some songs to sing, and then we will mix it.
MIM How do you make it work? You put together such epic albums, and I’m assuming you are working on different shores.
Hansi Kürsch We did some face to face, but for the most part, we are on different shores. Sometimes we do communicate a lot, but I think it is just chemistry. Chemistry is what is all about. We have a discussion about ideas for an album but then usually just exchanging ideas. We come to solutions very, very quickly so I think that the minds are alike so there is very little discussion.
MIM So you kind of guess each other’s next moves?
JS No. Not at all.
Hansi I really wouldn’t say so.
JS We flow perfectly well. It’s about carving out time in the schedule, actually to make it a reality. I mean, we have been trying to do this for the last ten years, but the schedule with our own bands has been conflicting. Early in our careers, we were lined up more on when our albums were releasing. It was like Iced Earth album would come out, and three months later, Blind Gaurdians would come out. And that happened for a few cycles. Earlier we were able to make Demons & Wizards happen within the holes. Your main band has to take priority. Get the record done, do the touring part of it. And for me as a writer, I don’t like to be in that touring mode. There are two totally different parts to my existence. I would much rather be the hermit in the studio, creating all the time. That’s where my heart really is. But to promote that I have to come out and do this part of it. And that means getting away from the guy who likes being isolated, left alone and start creating art, and that is where I really get all the satisfaction. So it’s like for me to do this Demons & Wizards stuff, and like saying that we have two weeks off, so let me change hats and be this songwriter guy, it wouldn’t be as good. I need to step away from the touring and a specific cycle, get my head in a certain space to really deliver some cool stuff to him. That’s got to happen. Then I just hand it over to him and he just kicks it over the goal line.
Hansi Blind Guardian are a little more picky in that way. We demand ourselves in that isolation; we stay away from any touring activity for almost eighteen months. Sometimes even more than eighteen months. The last gig we played now was nearly two years ago and we aren’t even finished with the writing of the new Blind Guardian album, so it’s pretty much the same. I dislike constant touring also. The mindset has to be quietly focused on the songwriting.
MIM From what I’ve read I assume the tour is going well?
JS Yeah! I’m just thrilled. I haven’t really read any reviews, but one and I think they called us Power Metal and that annoyed me a little bit. [laughing]
MIM What genre or label do you hate the most about your music?
JS That’s one of them. The people who throw us in that category, really don’t know the bands. They should just call us a fucking heavy metal band. All of us and by that I mean the three bands were talking about here. There is way more to us than that. I see so much cheesy stuff in the power metal genre. There is some really cool stuff too but to dump them all in is really not fair. Just call us fucking heavy metal.
MIM Do you have any Minnesota memories of touring back in the day?
Hansi I remember in St. Paul touring and it was bitterly cold. We were playing in some club, and there really was no backstage so we had to change our clothing on the bus and it was really cold. The bitter cold that is what I remember most about Minnesota.
JS Actually I came here with my daughter and spent a couple of days, and it was really nice, but most time I come here, it is cold as fuck. I don’t know why we always have the pleasure of touring the most brutally cold States and Canada when it’s cold as shit in the fucking dead ass of winter. We are always saying, “Why did we do this to ourselves?” But it happens.
MIM [Jon] I know that you are self-taught as a guitarist and a writer. What advice for someone that is trying to make roads in those spaces?
JS For a fee I’ll teach you everything [laughing]. For me, I’ve always been very artistic. As a kid, I was always drawing and painting, so that has always been a thing for me. But I got bit by KISS when I was seven years old when I bought KISS ALIVE, then getting to see them live in 1979 when I was eleven, it was life-changing. I still played basketball and such but everything started leaning towards doing this. But when it comes to the creative part, it really comes down to determination. If you have any sort of vision in your head, chase it. Don’t give up, whatever it takes. you WILL figure it out. They will tell you that you’re going to fail. They will tell you it will never going to work but fuck that.
Hansi I’m even more expensive! [all laughing] But what he said. It was the truth; it is the truth. Express yourself. If you are not able to deliver yourself in a piece of art, whatever you’re doing. You need to educate yourself but, be aware and be ready to break the rules. This is what it is. People will always tell you that this is musically incorrect or this has been produced before; someone else has been doing it. None of that is the truth so long as you’re doing your own thing. When we did our first album, our producer was already saying everything has been set by The Beatles. It’s true and it is not true at the same time. It’s paradoxical. You can always come up with something that someone else has not done in the same way. Yes, the chords may be the same but this is it.
JS It’s true, and that is the beauty of the individual spirit. That’s what changes it. Yes, that’s been done, but it is the individual spirit that puts twists on everything and weaves it together and creates something new which becomes the evolution on how you hear it. You do hear The Beatles in bands like Black Sabbath, but its those that get inspired by it and the spirit takes it and runs with it in another direction.
JS [points to Dana’s shirt] We didn’t get our name from Uriah Heap, by the way. I was in a brainstorming session with my ex-wife. I had to think of a name for what is Hansi and I. Our personalities, funny things about us and what is different as we are in terms of our bands. Especially in those days. We still connected beautifully. [pointing at Hansi] These guys were more smiley in their pictures and press photos and we were like all growling and angry. But when we were together, we were laughing like kids. Well, because we were kids and we still do that. We just don’t fucking drink as much. I said to her that it has to represent. It has to be something about demons, and she said how about Demons & Angels. I told her, “Hansi is no Angel, but he is a Wizard.”