By David E. Gehlke
Days after being unceremoniously dismissed from HELLOWEEN after the 2001 tour in support of "The Dark Ride", guitarist Roland Grapow was already plotting his Dave Mustaine power metal revenge moment with MASTERPLAN. "The Dark Ride" sold well but never sat properly with founding member and co-guitarist Michael Weikath, who felt Grapow was steering HELLOWEEN into darker, progressive territory that belied the band's "happy" metal origins. It wasn't before long that Weikath and frontman Andi Deris were slinging barbs in the press toward Grapow and drummer Uli Kusch, who also received the boot at the same time. Undaunted, Grapow and Kusch quickly put their proverbial ducks in a row with MASTERPLAN, who is now celebrating the 20th anniversary of their near-flawless self-titled debut.
Joined by emerging Norwegian vocalist Jørn Lande, MASTERPLAN's debut is loaded with anthemic, succinct numbers that did away with HELLOWEEN's occasional song structure excess in favor of tight, punchy constructions that almost always got to the point. Even then-metal-hating former HELLOWEEN frontman Michael Kiske got into the act on "Heroes", signaling it as the best HELLOWEEN song never committed to tape. For Grapow, it was a rare moment when everything went right, which is why BLABBERMOUTH.NET caught up with the guitarist at his Slovakia home base to reflect.
Blabbermouth: Do you recall the immediate aftermath of when HELLOWEEN let you go in late 2001?
Roland: "Not really, actually. When I started MASTERPLAN, I didn't think about them so much. Then, I met them in Sweden or Finland at a festival. It was six years ago. I was at the hotel. I said, 'Hey! How are you?' They tried to run away from me. I felt, 'Come on. We had such a good time. A rough time as well. After 15 years, you should remember the best parts. Now we are more than 20 years apart.' I've talked to them a couple of times. I've met them here in Slovakia, which is where I live. I went to the recent concerts because I know the promoter here. I met Kai Hansen many times; he's come to a MASTERPLAN concert in Hamburg. I was in contact with Michael Kiske a little bit. Everything seemed fine. Even 10 or 12 years ago, I went to Tenerife to meet with Weiki [Weikath]. I heard the rumors before the reunion was happening. I thought, 'Okay. Maybe they'll think about me.' Nothing came. I felt more negative because all the fans wrote me. That's the thing: 'Why are you not part of it?' Then I heard some bad comments from Andi Deris two years ago. He made some story up, which I found to be nonsense. That made me more sad than not being part of it."
Blabbermouth: Do you think that's because of the ongoing perception that "The Dark Ride" was your album?
Roland: "It's the biggest fantasy. To be honest, the management and producer, Roy Z, were responsible. We had the idea to make something darker, like the opposite of 'Chameleon'. That's what we did. Everyone loved the album when we were making it except Weiki [Weikath]. Everyone was proud of it. Then, when we were fired a year later, they talked about that it was my fault, which is not true. But I'm proud that 'The Dark Ride' was my last album with them. I think it's really powerful, different and strong. My input was everywhere. I played 75 percent of all the rhythm guitars and more solos than Weiki. He only wrote two songs. I'm really proud of it. The fans still write me about it."
Blabbermouth: Stylistically, "The Dark Ride" felt like the next step after "Better Than Raw".
Roland: "That album was pretty powerful as well. I thought it was nice to have a little change. It doesn't mean we have to stay on this level all the time. We could have gone back on the next album."
Blabbermouth: And it's not like you couldn't write melodic material like Weiki. You were doing it before "The Dark Ride".
Roland: "It sounds weird, but I saw myself in a defense situation, like a goalkeeper. I saw what the others wrote and I tried not to do the same. We didn't need ten songs of happy metal. I thought it was cool to have 'Mr. Ego', 'Time Of The Oath', 'The Dark Ride', or even 'Escalation 666'. Why should I write happy material all the time? I could do it. I thought my part was to make something more interesting. That's how I saw myself: As a team player. There wasn't too much thinking. It was more about instinct."
Blabbermouth: Was the idea for MASTERPLAN already floating around while you were still in HELLOWEEN?
Roland: "There were no plans about making another band while I was in HELLOWEEN. It was a solo album I wanted to do. My first solo album came in 1997 and the second was in 1999. I was tired of being compared to Yngwie [Malmsteen]. I was a big fan at the time. I thought it was cool, but it was time to make something different. I even thought of doing a blues hard rock or metal album, but not neo-classical. I talked to the other guys while on tour about trying something. I had two or three songs written. Then Uli came and said, 'Let's do something together.' Uli had songs that HELLOWEEN didn't want. I thought we could do these songs, like 'Into The Light'. Parts of 'Soulburn' were played to the HELLOWEEN guys. I said, 'Let's do it together. It's easier for me.' I liked his songwriting and drumming. We started talking a bit about it. We thought, 'Who could sing?' Russell Allen [SYMPHONY X]. I spoke with him and met him during the songwriting process. I was already fired from HELLOWEEN. He came to Roy Z's place in Los Angeles. I flew him in from New York. We worked on the songs. He sang spontaneous ideas. He'd listen, sing and that was it. He was amazing. We had good feelings about him. We went further with the idea to create a new band. I said to Uli, 'If we don't have something strong, we're out of business.' That's how the band came up. 'Let's do something serious and not with a singer who is a 'project' singer.' We wanted our own singer. That's when Russell said he wasn't leaving SYMPHONY X. Then we needed to find somebody else. The next idea was to ask Michael Kiske. He said no and wasn't singing heavy metal at the time because he didn't like it. He agreed to sing one song but did not join the band. We stuck to that plan, which became 'Heroes'. On the HELLOWEEN tour bus, we got a promo copy of ARK. We went, 'Oh my god. Who is this guy? He's great.' It took three months to get in touch with Jørn because he wasn't reachable. I asked the record label in France if they had his contact info. We got in touch with Jørn through his wife, who was his girlfriend. He wrote me back and agreed to come to Hamburg and listen to our songs. We were really quick. We contacted him in October. Then, we started recording with [producer] Andy Sneap that month. We felt we had something really good already. We didn't have a label at the time; everything was paid for with my own money."
Blabbermouth: Was there ever a feeling of "This may not work?"
Roland: "I was nervous. I really meant it when I told Uli we had to do something powerful. We had a lot of bad feelings from the ex-members of HELLOWEEN. We didn't understand why they did it. Uli and I talked about it. I was happy when I was flying after the tour with HELLOWEEN. Roy Z knew the guys. He knew we were having trouble with 'The Dark Ride'. He helped me a lot psychologically. Everything was a bit easier for me. Then we came home, we were on fire: 'We have to show them how good we are!' [Laughs] What we achieved, Uli and me, we really took care of the arrangements of the songs, much more than we ever did before. We had songwriting, but we thought about intros, changes of the parts, and bridges. You can hear it a lot on the first album."
Blabbermouth: I always thought the beauty of the self-titled was how short and to the point the songs are.
Roland: "We said, 'Anything that makes the song worse, take it out.' [Laughs] We had 16 ideas. In the end, we had one bonus track for Japan, then one for Europe. We had a song we didn't use. It was a song used on the 'MK II' record. We had a couple of songs left and there's still one we never released."
Blabbermouth: Jørn could really sound like David Coverdale [WHITESNAKE]. Did you have to rein him in at all?
Roland: "We had some disagreements about the songs. He's not a metal guy. He likes rock. We have the same idols. We both love John Farnham as a singer who is not heavy metal. We were into rock bands like QUEEN, DEEP PURPLE and RAINBOW; he's also a big Ronnie James Dio fan. At that time, he was singing a bit more like David Coverdale. He has other idols like Björk. You can hear it in his voice. He has many phrasings like hers. It's pretty cool. He's like a chameleon with all his idols. But he's so good, you can't say he's a copy."
Blabbermouth: Did you ever feel Jørn was not fully committed to MASTERPLAN?
Roland: "In the beginning, I felt [he was committed]. After he finished the album and heard the mix, he said, 'I will leave ARK and put all my power into MASTERPLAN.' Of course, very soon, he started making solo albums. We did an interview that's included with the bonus DVD. He was talking positively about the band. This was at the end of the tour, which meant the album release was two months before. Even on 'Aeronautics', he was still really into it. Then, something changed during the recording. He stopped smoking and needed to go to the doctor. He started singing lower and not so high. His style changed a little bit. Then, he was talking about other things. Like, 'We shouldn't play double bass.' [Laughs] I said, 'Oh my god! It takes all the power away!' Then he left after 'Aeronautics', but I asked him again if he wanted to rejoin. Then we did 'Time To Be King' and you can hear the difference. It's a great album, but it's not so metal. I was happy with it."
Blabbermouth: The debut is virtually flawless. Do you feel like it was revenge toward those who were badmouthing you and Uli?
Roland: "It felt like revenge. When we did interviews after it came out, I felt, 'Oh my god. People are excited.' We waited one year before the album came. It was finished the year before, in 2002. Then, 'Now, finally, something is happening.' Then, we got an award in Europe for the best-selling debut. It's not heavy metal; it's about everything from Germany. Other countries had pop artists. We were really proud. We had a lot of touring during the first year. I counted and I'm not sure if I'm right, but we did 50 shows, not including festivals. It was pretty awesome. But the best part was when I heard the ex-members talking about it. Some guy told me they were pissed. [Laughs] I was thinking of writing typical HELLOWEEN songs with something like 'Heroes'. It's like 'I Want Out'. I wrote the song pretty quickly, but I couldn't find the vocal melody to give it a catchy feeling. It took three weeks. I went back and back and then I thought, 'Okay. This is a song Michael Kiske should sing."
Blabbermouth: And you always got along with Kiske, right?
Roland: "I was very shy when I joined HELLOWEEN. I didn't know how to speak English. For the first three years, I didn't speak to anyone. [Laughs] We went to America and I was always smiling. People thought, 'This guy must be weird.' The guys from EXODUS and ANTHRAX tried to talk to me and I said, 'Sorry!' The main thing is that I was shy and didn't want to make mistakes. I didn't want to look like an idiot. I was the oldest band member in HELLOWEEN. I was 29 or 30. Kiske was 21. There was a big difference. Kiske was so secure. He seemed like a very grown-up guy who talked all the time about his philosophy or the books he was reading. We flew to Japan a lot together. He liked me a lot. I'm an easy guy. I wasn't fighting with anybody. [Laughs] The only thing I was thinking negatively was about the management. They always supported the singer better than the rest of the band, which is why I wrote 'Mr. Ego'. It was me venting and a chance to state my opinion."
Blabbermouth: It's been a decade since the last MASTERPLAN studio album. What's the status or songwriting approach of the next one?
Roland: "I'm not famous for copying myself. Of course, the first two MASTERPLAN albums are milestones. I don't even try to touch them since I can't beat them. I continue with the same feeling as I always do. My writing partner is our keyboard player, Axel Mackenrott, and we have some guest writers as well. I'm always open to guest songwriters. Then, I make my fingerprint with my style. We have some really metal-ish kind of songs and some typical MASTERPLAN progressive elements, but not too much. I don't want to be too progressive. I will soon be delivering to AFM [Records] the first song and it will come out in January."
Roland Grapow press photo courtesy of AFM Records