INTERVIEW WITH MAIK WEICHERT BY KEVIN STEWART-PANKO
PHOTOGRAPH BY CANDY WELZ
After almost 25 years of doing press in support of the band he formed with fellow original members—vocalist Marcus Bischoff and his bass playing brother Eric—Heaven Shall Burn guitarist Maik Weichert remains one of the best interviews in metal-dom. He’s always dripping with insight, has a riotous sense of humor, and never presents like it’s a pain in the ass to be yapping on the horn, even if it’s after a long day in the trenches at his legal eagle day gig or after bringing the sounds of melodic death infused metallic hardcore over the course of nine studio albums, including latest Of Truth and Sacrifice.
Weichert and the rest of Heaven Shall Burn—rounded out by fellow guitarist Alexander Dietz and drummer Christian Bass—has worked hard, emerging from the rural part of eastern Germany to European metal scene prominence but always tempering that success with a humble, grateful air that also refuses any resting on laurels. As such, the new release is a first for the band, being a 19 song double album clocking in at over an hour-and-a-half that pendulously swings between both the heaviest and most experimental moments of their history. And it would appear that fans from their home nation have taken the band’s expansive approach to heart, pushing Heaven Shall Burn to the top of the German charts upon the album’s domestic release last month.
The band was on the eve of their first live performances in two years in support of the new record when the world went into lockdown. So, seeing as neither of us had much to do, we spoke with Weichert to discuss liberation from time constraints, confusion over being one of the biggest metal bands in Germany, and choosing to work when you don’t have to.
Was the idea of doing a double album after your previous record, Wanderer, intentional?
We didn’t sit down and deliberately start the concept for a double album, but we actually decided pretty early on it was going to be a double album. When we started songwriting, we really realized how many riffs and visions and ideas there were and pretty soon the idea for the album title, Of Truth and Sacrifice, came up and these two strong words carried a duality in them. As the songwriting was coming along very well, we did a lot of experimenting and realized that it wouldn’t be a boring 100 minutes of music. If it was 10 really good songs and 10 songs that sounded like the other 10 songs, then we wouldn’t have done a double record. You have to entertain people over the distance of the album and that’s part of why we have an experimental mood on this album.
“THE IDEA FOR THE ALBUM TITLE, OF TRUTH AND SACRIFICE, CAME UP AND THESE TWO STRONG WORDS CARRIED A DUALITY IN THEM.”
There are a number of musical styles and spoken word parts in three or four different languages. Where did these ideas come from? Were they something you always wanted to do?
Actually, we’ve kind of always done that, but in a very reduced way. For example, a song like “La Resistance” is very electronic and almost synthwave or industrial-like. We’ve had parts like that in the past, but it would be more like a surprising riff in a song, an experimental piece, or an instrumental middle part of a song. Over the course of a double album, you have enough space and time to develop whole songs out of that experimental riff and not just have it be a surprise in an ordinary song. Maybe that’s why it’s more obvious now. The experiments don’t take part in the frame of an ordinary Heaven Shall Burn song. The experiments are experimental songs by themselves. That’s the thing that makes it more obvious.
Was Of Truth and Sacrifice written in one big chunk, or did you do it in parts where you would write part of it, go on tour, come home, then write some more?
That is exactly what we wanted to avoid on this record. We wanted to enter the studio without any deadlines or dates in our heads because it really sucks when you’re about to record something and then you have to get all your equipment together, play a festival, then go back to the studio and get into the recording mood again. We really didn’t want that and we decided to write the record and, after everything was recorded, discuss a release date with the label. This time we didn’t have any pressure in the studio and it was a great way to work. But to be honest, in the end, we realized that for the final touches like mixing and mastering, you need deadlines otherwise you’ll never finish anything (laughs). So, we worked with some deadlines in the end, but for the creative process it was really good to not have any deadlines hanging around our necks.
Was Century Media cool with that, or did you tell them that this is how it was going to be and to deal with it?
Exactly. What are they going to do? They can’t put out a record on their own without us. They have to wait for what’s coming to them. But I mean, it’s our seventh record on Century Media and those guys know how we work now. They know that if they just let us do what we want to do, the results will be the best they can get. They trust us. I mean, I would never trust the band if I was the label, but in this case they were right to trust us (laughs).
“YOU WOULD THINK A DOUBLE RECORD WOULD BE TWICE THE WORK, BUT IT ACTUALLY CREATES AT LEAST THREE TIMES THE WORK”
So, with a double record, videos for five songs already, a documentary, and everything that goes into manufacturing the different formats and special/limited editions of the album available, how difficult was it trying to coordinate all that stuff?
Doing the documentary wasn’t a lot of work at all. They just filmed what we’re doing anyway, and it’s not like we’re actors saying lines and they’re shooting scenes. The cameras just followed us and had a look at what we were doing. The most time intensive thing was actually the decision to do the double record. Logically, you would think a double record would be twice the work, but it actually creates at least three times the work (laughs), and we totally underestimated that and there was a lot of shit to do, especially with the mix. Mixing 20 songs instead of 10 will drive you bloody insane! You really need breaks in between, and those are the things that make it take more time.
As far as the documentary, I’ve only seen the trailer and it was exclusively in German. Was it designed for your home nation audiences with no subtitles?
No, no. There are subtitles on the DVD. The basic idea of the documentary was to do some kind of “Making of” of the record that should be the frame of the story. So, after you watch the DVD, we wanted you to know what kind of people we are, what Heaven Shall Burn is about, where we come from, where we grew up, what we think, what we’re doing, and where we’re heading. That’s actually the main part, and the making of the record is just part of the story around it. It was shown in many German cinemas and was a huge success, which we didn’t expect because we only planned it to be a bonus for the special box editions of the release. But cinemas were interested in it, we brought it to the cinemas, and people really liked it. You know how band documentaries usually just interview some famous friends of the band, they say something nice about the band, and blah, blah, blah? We don’t do that in our documentary. It’s about what we’re doing, what our day jobs are, because we’re a special case in that we could live off the music, but we all still work day jobs because it’s very important for us to have a regular daily life and not only be a part of the rock ‘n’ roll circus—that’s just for stupid people (laughs).
“IT’S VERY IMPORTANT FOR US TO HAVE A REGULAR DAILY LIFE AND NOT ONLY BE A PART OF THE ROCK ‘N’ ROLL CIRCUS—THAT’S JUST FOR STUPID PEOPLE”
What does the documentary title, Mein Grünes Herz in Dunklen Zeit, mean?
It translates to My Green Heart in Dark Times and refers to us being from the state of Thuringia, which is a part of Germany where there are no real big cities. It’s just woods and mountains and it’s always referred to as the “green heart” of Germany, so that’s why we called it that. And, of course, it’s also because green heart could pertain to a green ideology or something. Also, it’s about how in the past general elections here in Germany, the right-wing parties have gotten stronger and that’s why we called part of it “In Dark Times.”
You mentioned the duality of the album’s title. Was there a specific story as to what led to you going with Of Truth and Sacrifice?
When I think about record titles, I always try to get a sense of the zeitgeist, the terminology, and feelings that are around and the words that are very important right now. I really felt that the concept of, and the term, “truth” is very, very important these days, especially if you look at this Coronavirus crisis where everybody thinks that after five minutes of Google-ing they are as smart as the virus experts. That’s just a symptom of our days, that we have to think of stuff like alternative facts and truths. Isn’t it insane that if you have an issue or a problem and you don’t like the truth of it, you can do a few minutes of Google-ing and have five other truths for the same problem? Then, you can choose to believe what you want and it won’t change anything in your own life. Just look a Flat Earthers. Half of the electronic devices they have at home wouldn’t work if the Earth was a disc, but they’re using these devices and just don’t see it or care. They just believe what they want, so the truth is not connected to daily life and that’s the insanity of our days. Of course, we’re not talking about truth in areas where you can have different opinions, like whether you vote Democrat or Republican or which NHL team is the best. We’re talking about truth as is relates to basic human rights. It is very scary that fundamental, basic truths are being renegotiated. For example, is a human life in Africa worth less than a human life in North America or Europe? Or should people have the right to access clean drinking water? That stuff is being discussed again and that is absolutely a no-go. These are basic fundamental rights and values that shouldn’t be discussed at all, and that is something to fight against.
“IT IS VERY SCARY THAT FUNDAMENTAL, BASIC TRUTHS ARE BEING RENEGOTIATED.”
I was recently talking to a friend from Switzerland who was telling me about a TV singing contest winner that went online about how his album, which was released the same day as Of Truth and Sacrifice, was going to be number one. Then he had an internet hissy fit when your album ended up on top of the German charts. My question/comment here pertains to my underestimating the popularity of Heaven Shall Burn in Germany. I’ve been following the band since 2002’s Whatever It May Take, but I never knew you’d become that popular.
It’s not a surprise to me because metal is so big in Germany. Germans love metal and if they’re not building tanks from it, they’re listening to it (laughs). Metal has always been really big here, but the question about why or how Heaven Shall Burn got so big is still a mystery to me as well. We are totally surrounded by so many bands that are more talented but aren’t as successful as we are. Maybe it’s because we are a band whose image is that we have no image and maybe that’s why the documentary was so successful? We’re the guys next door and people like that. We’ve never made a big fuss about being in the charts, even though this is our third record that has been in the top 10, and this time, luckily, we hit the number one spot. With that casting show guy, his mistake was that he attacked the whole metal scene, and that’s why so many people supported us to where we could be number one, which was a nice surprise. I would totally say that I have no idea how Heaven Shall Burn has gotten so big. When I was a kid I would never have imagined that we would be so big in Germany when you think about bands like Kreator, Blind Guardian, or Accept. Luckily, Germany is also a very big market, so you can make a good living off the music.
Speaking of which, you’re doing a Ph.D. in Law and Marcus works in the medical field?
Yeah, he’s an intensive care unit nurse, so you can imagine what he’s doing right now. We could make a living off the music easily. We make a lot of money playing music, but we’ve decided to follow our day jobs because that’s important to us. Working day jobs gives us a nice balance. If you’re just playing 300 shows a year and always on the road, it really doesn’t feel good, wears you down, and kills a lot of your creativity. So, when I’m in the library writing papers and stuff like that, I’m happy to go out on stage and play, and when I’m on the tour bus for a month, I’m totally happy to go back to the library and my books again. The paradox is that the bigger the band gets, the easier it is to find the time for the band. Now, we’re tour headliners, people fall into line with our schedule, we can play one festival and make the same money as playing 10 in the past. It’s actually a lot harder playing in a smaller band and having a day job than it is playing in a bigger band and having a day job. It sounds strange, but that’s the way it is.
“WE DON’T HAVE TO PLAY EVERY TOUR OR PLAY EVERY FESTIVAL AND WE CAN SAY NO IF WE DON’T WANT TO DO SOMETHING”
That wouldn’t have occurred to me. I don’t know if you have a full-time manager or not, but I would think that just keeping on top of things and business and planning would be a job itself?
When we were on tour, everything around us has to be handled by total professionals. You can’t run a band on that level with hobby level people, that wouldn’t work. You need to be surrounded by pros. On the other hand, the core of the band itself looks at this like a kind of hobby, which also sounds strange, I know, but gives us something to fall back on. If the hype is ever over, we know we can still pay our rent. We don’t have to play every tour or play every festival and we can say no if we don’t want to do something, and that really allows you to relax, brings the band forward, and allows us to reflect on what we’ve done.
So, what you’re saying is that you could be a full-time band, but you choose not to be. Do you ever feel the stress of the additional responsibility of having a crew and other behind-the-scenes people on your payroll?
Yeah, I know what you mean, and, of course, there’s a lot of responsibility for other people, but we don’t tour that often. We do one or two tours a year, and that’s why we don’t have employees. We hire freelancers who work for many bands, but you feel really bad when you see what’s going on right now and we’re trying to take care of our people and trying to bring some money to them. You can earn good money as a tech or rigger or whatever, but your income can disappear quite quickly and that must feel absolutely deadly. We totally feel for our guitar techs and stuff. Those are the people we rely on. Some of those crew jobs literally have us handing our lives over every night to those people, and it’s crucial that bands take care of those people. One of the good things about having a lawyer—me—in the band is that in Germany, if the authorities tell you to stop or cancel a show, you can sue the state to get the money for it.
Yeah. Fortunately, German authorities spend a lot of money on cultural pursuits and have tried to make sure all of these people still have an income. They’ve brought up a lot of money, something like 50 billion Euros, to immediately help people and businesses related to culture.
What was your plan before everything started getting canceled?
We took a two year break from playing live and we were happy to get out and play again, and then “Bam!” Not only did we just take a two year live show break, but now we have a mandatory live show break and we don’t know when that will end. We feel like a racehorse stuck in the starting box waiting for the doors to open (laughs). The record just came out, hit number one on the German Billboard, and we were about to bring it to the people and were totally keen to go out and play. It’s really frustrating.
“WE FEEL LIKE A RACEHORSE STUCK IN THE STARTING BOX WAITING FOR THE DOORS TO OPEN”
As usual, there’s a cover on the new album. Why Nuclear Assault’s “Critical Mass”?
Nuclear Assault is just a killer band. We’ve always loved them for not being that perfectly played thrash metal. They always had that punky attitude in their sound. Don’t get me wrong, I also love all the Bay Area stuff, but Nuclear Assault were always a little more hardcore in their sound and I also really found it interesting to show younger people that there’s a song more than 30 years old that is singing about environmental problems. That song is very actual, but also kind of retro. I mean, who sings about acid rain these days? (laughs) And it’s just a killer song.
With the process and everything surrounding the new album, what was most surprising and what did you learn, especially after having done the band for almost 25 years now?
I think the real game changer was going into the studio without deadlines. That is something we’re definitely going to do again, because it was a great way to work. Back in the day, we recorded records that were so close to the deadlines that if our singer caught a cold for a week, we would have to postpone the release date. That kind of pressure really sucks. If you record everything and talk about the release date after everything is mixed and mastered, it gives a lot of freedom and good sleep (laughs).
I’ve been making the joke that with everyone in quarantine, in nine months you’re going to see a lot of babies being born and a whole bunch of new albums coming out. Are you taking advantage of the international lockdown to start writing new material?
(laughs) No, I’m totally not in the mood to write any new songs right now. I’m so happy this record is out and I’m just in the phase where I can’t even imagine doing another record ever again! (laughs) That will change in two or three months, of course, because I know myself. But right now, I would hate writing new music. No way. I’m enjoying that this record is out, that people are enjoying it and there’s been positive feedback, but doing new music right now is not happening. It’s interesting you’re saying this because I’ve been thinking the same thing. I think it will be positive that bands will be forced to sit down, focus and take the time to write music. It might be like back in the day when a good record was the most important thing. Now, the most important thing is to play shows to make money. Bands may not be trying to write shitty records, but I sometimes feel bands don’t put as much effort into their records anymore. Hopefully, that will change and maybe that’s a little positive aspect about this whole situation.