Masterplan and former Helloween guitarist Roland Grapow’s interview
Written by Kevin Tanza on December 30, 2020
Roland Grapow is one of the most underrated German guitar players of all time. He has written and recorded some phenomenal songs and albums for more than three decades, showing his versatility as a musician and songwriter. Mainly known as the second guitar player of Helloween in the 90s, he also delivered two really good solo albums and has led his own band, Masterplan, for almost two decades now, being a honest reflection of his musical interests. Add to that a very successful career as a producer and you have a man who has always given his best in this business.
In that regard, it is an absolute honor to have Roland here and to have done this interview. Not only from a professional perspective, but as a fan as well; I have been listening to his music since I was in high school and getting the opportunity to talk with one of my childhood heroes is always a great experience. I hope you enjoy this retrospective interview about Roland’s career as much as I enjoyed it doing it!
Welcome to MusikHolics, Roland. It’s great to have you here. First and foremost, how are things going with you and your loved ones during this pandemic?
Thanks for having me here, we are doing fine here in Slovakia, but I didn’t see any friends for almost eight months and just had mixing jobs. That means no clients in the studio for any recordings. But now I am back for songwriting process for the new Masterplan album.
I know that your main job is as a producer. How this pandemic affected your work?
To be honest, in the last two months I worked for four bands mixing their albums. It seems it didn’t affect my business at all. It is more about the live business, I guess, but we will see in the long term what happens.
Let’s start from the very beginning and let’s go our way to the present day: How did you get into music in your youth?
I was very fascinated when I was around 11 or 12 about Grand Funk Railroad, Mark Farner was my inspiration and hero as a performer and singer…. But then the German heroes came into my music life, Michael Schenker and Uli Roth. But Mark Farner was the reason why I started.
Who were the musicians and bands that inspired you the most?
Maybe Grand Funk inspired me to play guitar and start singing, but I guess Scorpions, Deep Purple and Uriah Heep I liked more for my music style. Later I loved Foreigner, Kansas, Styx, Journey, TOTO and so many more. Queen, of course, and Van Halen,
For many years I was very much inspired by Steve Lukather, I learned all those solo parts of him, but my biggest inspiration are still Michael Schenker and Uli Roth in the 70s. In Helloween I had a couple of years a period where I loved Yngwie Malmsteen a lot, but now I am more into feelings on guitar, like Ty Tabor or Stevie Ray Vaughn. I think I always loved when a guitar player also has his unique sound, like Eddie Van Halen, Brian May, Ty Tabor’s early King’s X tone, Ritchie Blackmore and so on…
I always make this question: Can you name ten albums that you think deserve more attention?
R: Like all the Masterplan albums (laughs). Also Kings X deserves more attention. I guess in general, fans like more concepts and image than good music. Many bands are successful and I don’t understand why (laughs). Sorry, I didn’t answer that question really.
Roland Grapow with his first band, Rampage.
Most people started to know you when you joined Helloween but you actually started with a band called Rampage back in 1979. What can you tell us about that band?
Yeah I started at 16 having my first band, Virus, then we changed the name and lineup a couple of times. I guess Rampage was my third band. We were all good friends and had a lot of fun and big hope in that band. We released two albums and were dreaming about a career. We played many weekend gigs and had also a TV story on German TV, a story about our bass player which was a police officer and the Rock band Rampage, which he played with… it was much more a conflict in the 80s than now. He needed to cut his hair short and wasn’t allowed to have tattoos or earrings at that time. Anyway one day Michael Weikath was in front of the stage watching me at that show in Hamburg. But this story continued later on (laughs).
How was the experience of recording your first professional album with that band, 1980’s Victim of Rock?
It was strange, we didn’t have any experience in recording something, everyone was doing his part separately, I mean overdubs, solo parts and vocals, but I didn’t like my guitar sound at all. But there was nobody showing us how to do it, there was no internet to learn from. No home recording equipment, just expensive gear for pros.
What do you think are the main difference between that album and its follow-up, 1982’s Love Lights Up The Night?
The band was better and more experienced playing. I really liked here guitar sound here a lot more, also the mix was much better. Otherwise I knew I will leave the band after we will finish the studio work. In those times we recorded it maybe just in 2 weeks, including mixing.
Looking back as a musician and as a producer, what do you think of your work on Rampage?
I would love to have that experience I have now, back then to help, but we were very young and naïve. We were only focused on our instruments. I was not even watching the mixing process. I was also very shy at that time, so I didn’t ask many questions at all…
Why did Rampage split up?
I don’t know exactly why, but I guess our bass player was getting too dominant in every way, I told him I will leave after the second album, but we stayed friends (I even played many years with his brother, who is a drummer and singer as well). Two or three years later Jörg the bass player and also singer committed suicide.
Karsten Heyer, the other guitar player, died soon after him in the age of 25 of stomach cancer… Rampage continued playing live after I left, but a very sad ending came for the band.
The German Metal scene was certainly very different to what it is today. What do you remember of those early days?
In those times at Rampage we had several bands around us in Hamburg, which were great, but all are gone. Before we had many Krautrock bands and the great Scorpions… like I said, we didn’t have internet, no contact to any bands from other cities, we always thought Hannover and Hamburg was the Rock part of Germany… I guess that around 1985 came a new wave with bands like Helloween and Running Wild, which I found out later because I was more into Toto and melodic Rock at that time.
I read that after Rampage you went to work as a car mechanic. I’m curious to know why didn’t you join another band or form a new one.
I was a car mechanic starting at 16… learning for three years and a half and then I went to the Army for 18 month. That’s why I had short hair in Rampage (laughs). When I joined Helloween before Christmas of ’88, I quit my job after twelve and a half years as a car mechanic…..all of these bands were just a hobby, we didn’t make any money with any of them. After Rampage I played in two or three other bands, but I was getting more and more into home recording and home studio work.
Roland Grapow (R) when he joined Helloween in the late 80s.
You eventually joined Helloween in 1988. I know you’re probably asked this a lot, but how was the process to join the band?
Weiki called me in August 88 with the question if I was still playing guitar, because he saw me at a Rampage show, like I mentioned before and he was mega impressed. He asked me if I’d like to join Helloween after they will finish the European tour, because Kai wanted to leave the band…so I started learning the songs and in December I was playing five songs with them at the rehearsal room. Six weeks later I was already on tour in America with them and than we went to Japan after that.
Musically speaking, would you say that you were different to those guys or it was easy to gel with them in that regard?
Yes and no. I liked many songs already, but I need it also to learn some new styles as well, but it wasn’t that difficult for me.
Your first album with the band was 1991’s Pink Bubbles Go Ape. That took a less epic sound than the two previous Keeper of the Seven Keys works. Was that by design or it was a natural change in the band?
I think it was a combination of using a different producer, management and also that Weiki and Michael Kiske wanted to try some new styles.
You actually wrote some of the heaviest songs in the album. How was the writing process of Someone’s Crying, for example?
I tried to find a way to fit into the Helloween sound. I was touring with them already a lot. The first song I wrote for the band was The Chance, then Someone’s Crying, then Mankind.
I know that you recently rerecorded The Chance for Masterplan’s PumpKings. What can you tell us about that song?
Yeah, it was maybe the most important one in my career. It was the first one for Helloween and also the lyrics are about my chance to be a professional musician, so it is a very personal song to me.
The music video for Kids of the Century is certainly very humorous. How did you guys come up with that concept and how was the process of making it?
Storm Thorgerson was the guy behind the concept, he also made the album artwork. We just tried to be funny. Like Spinal Tap.
I always considered 1994’s Master of the Rings a comeback album of sorts. I read that you and Michael Weikath already had a few riffs and songs written when entering the studio and that’s why it didn’t take that long to make. Is that true?
Yes, we had already great metal songs written. It was easy to work with the new lineup. It was very creative and how it should be, like everybody wants the same direction.
You released your solo album, The Four Seasons of Life, in 1997. What was the inspiration behind making a solo album?
My desire to write more songs, more personal stuff and more neo-classical at that time. More lyrics about myself and my way of thinking.
You sang on that album. Have you ever taken vocal lessons or was it something you did out of necessity for that album?
I started singing when I was 12 because of Mark Farner. I was also singing all of my songs in Rampage, some songs of mine came later again in Helloween, like Music or Step out of Hell, which was formerly Victims of Rock in Rampage. I was always a singer as well.
Helloween bassist Markus Grosskopf and drummer Uli Kusch played on that album. I know you’re still friends with Uli, but was Markus close to you as well?
We were all close to each other, but not anymore.
Roland Grapow with Helloween circa 1994.
What would you say are the differences between making a solo album and starting your own band, like you did with Masterplan later on?
A solo album should be more like an experience with different flavours and styles.
For your 1999 solo album, Kaleidoscope, you hired former Yngwie and Loudness vocalist Michael Vescera. How much of an impact did he have on your songwriting for that album?
He was singing, I wrote all the songs and told him how to sing it, but he helped with some of my lyrics.
How does that album compare to The Four Seasons of Life?
It is more band-sounding and more melodic, plus a bit less neo-classical.
How you convinced Jørn Lande to join Masterplan?
We played him the already recorded album, he was just amazed about it and inspired.
The first Masterplan album has been highly regarded by pretty much all the Metal press and fans alike. How was the writing process for that album?
We had a couple of songs already written (Step into the Light, Soulburn, Sail On, Bleeding Eyes and some more) after we left our former band. We finished the last songs in only three months.
What makes Masterplan different to the albums that you made in Helloween and your solo career?
I guess the result of what I like and also what I learned from The Dark Ride studio sessions: to have a vision of what I like to hear from a good band.
I know that you were a fan of Andy Sneap’s work as a producer. How much of an impact did he have on the album?
Andy was really pushed by myself. I said we needed a great sound and specially a great guitar sound. We worked for a week in my old Hamburg Crazy Cat studio, and he is just great, he is still one of my best friends. I love his work, he is also my favorite producer. Even though he didn’t mix the first Masterplan albums, I learned a lot from him.
Michael Kiske sang on a track of the album, Heroes. How that collaboration came to be?
I thought it was clever to ask him to join Masterplan, but he said he was not into Metal at the time and wanted to follow his solo career, but he agreed to sing on one part of the song for me.
In 2005 you guys did that follow-up, Aeronautics. What do you think was different compared to the debut album?
It was more a band equal work. Jorn, Uli and I were working very close as a team. The first album was Uli’s and my solo album, Jorn had some vocal ideas there and some lyrics.
Any particular favorite track on that album?
No, I love all our songs.
In 2007, for the band’s third album, MK II, Lande and Uli left. What was the reason behind that?
Jorn was never into German Metal at all. He also wanted to go solo. After that Uli was also very frustrated and was very unsecure about finding a new singer and his future. Also the music business was not so secure anymore. Uli wanted a more secure life.
You added former Riot vocalist Mike Di Meo. How was the experience of working with Mike?
Mike is a lovely guy and great singer, we worked very close and fast at that time, there is nothing bad about him, but he is more into Rock and Stevie Wonder instead of the Metal stuff we came from.
Roland Grapow and Jorn Lande live with Masterplan.
It was during this period of your career that you started working as a producer. How do you feel about that role?
I remember asking AFM records for another advance to survive and they said “No, sorry, but you have a studio. Why don’t you record other bands or produce them?” I thought that is not what I wanted, but at the same period of that time, I was asked of a band to record their album and it has been opening me many doors since then
What do you think it’s necessary to be a quality producer?
Experience. And a guy that can take a band to a higher level. They should trust him in the way of ideas and arrangements. You find two different kinds of producers: one who is recording you well and one is giving you input about your songs, arrangements and performance…some do both well (winks).
I feel that one of your most underrated albums with Masterplan was 2010’s Time to be King, with Lande back in the band. What do you think makes that album so strong?
That album was the result of the compromises, Jorn told me: “No German Metal stuff anymore”. But somehow I like it as well, but fans are lnot understanding it. Jorn left the band immediately after the release, even though we tried to create a tour for that. But he felt this should be on a higher level! He was blaming our record label for that again and disappeared.
Roland Grapow with Rick Altzi on Masterplan.
By 2013’s Novum Initium you met your current vocalist, Rick Altzi. How did that affected the way you wrote that album?
No, everything was written for Jorn, but since that former release of Time To Be King, he never answered my messages anymore. So Rick was saving our lives.
You also have former Stratovarius bassist Jari Kainulainen. What does he bring to the table as a bassist?
Yeah, he is fun. Good vibes and a great bass player.
What motivated you to rerecord your Helloween tracks in 2017’s PumpKings?
Helloween are not playing any song of mine since I left the band, even those which were written for Rampage. I thought it was time to bring them back home…
You’re obviously a much more experienced musician and producer now. How do you feel looking back on those songs you made?
Many are written with feelings. I love them still.
Are you currently working on a new Masterplan album?
Yes, it still takes some time, though. The situation is horrible right now, I didn’t see my band since January.
After so many years in the industry, what goals do you still have as a musician?
Not many, just helping younger bands in the studio and having some nice albums out with Masterplan or other projects. Maybe a solo album, where I am singing again.
And as a producer, is there a band in particular you would like to work with?
Many, but it might be just a dream. We will see. I always work hard to get better!
Thank you for answering so many questions, Roland. That really means a lot. Any last words for our readers?
Thank you very much too. I would like to wish everybody health in body and mind. Keep going and listen to the good music.
All the best,