CD Review and Interview: Masterplan “Time to Be King”

Masterplan “Time to Be King” playback

Friday 5th March

The Intrepid Fox, London

Interview and photos by Dawn Irwin

The last night of the European tour … Slovakia, 2007

After a successful tour as support for Saxon in the summer of 2007, it seemed that Masterplan was on the rise again, with powerhouse Mike Terrana (Malmsteen, Axel Rudi Pell, Rage) on drums, and new vocalist Mike DiMeo (Riot, The Lizards) joining in 2006 to replace Jorn Lande.  Rather disappointingly the flames of euphoria seemed to dwindle after the tour as the hype deteriorated into complete silence.  During some exchanges of correspondence with Roland Grapow, it became apparent to me that he had other things on his mind, namely finishing his studio in Slovakia in order to get on with the business of recording and producing many other bands and artists.  However, it was during once of these exchanges mid-2009 that Roland mentioned that he was laying down tracks for with Jorn for a new Masterplan album.  As there hadn’t been an official announcement at that point I was beside myself with excitement.  I confess to being devastated when I heard of the initial split with Jorn and whilst there is no doubt that Mike DiMeo has a powerful set of pipes, from a live point of view there was something that didn’t quite gel, and of the four live shows I witnessed I distinctly recall being quite miffed at certain timing issues and missed cues in some of the songs I love so well.   Ever the cynic, though, as far as the return of Jorn was concerned, I resorted to my motto of “I’ll believe it when I see it”, and when the official announcement finally materialised, followed swiftly by new single “Far From the End of the World” I knew there was absolutely no doubt.  Jorn was back … Masterplan was resurrected!

I caught up with Roland after the album playback in London where I had the opportunity to ask him about the return of Jorn, the rebirth of Masterplan and what else is going on in his life at the moment.  I began by recalling the last show of the European tour in Slovakia where there had been a problem with the promoter which inevitably involved money.  With Roland already somewhat disillusioned with the press reaction to the new line up and the live performances on the tour, it was hardly surprising that he, whether subconsciously or not, decided to take a break.  I began by asking him about the issues he had with the press. “It was pretty bad,” he began.  “We had the first five shows of the tour in the West of Germany where all the metal magazines are.  They said we had destroyed something good … first losing Jorn, then having a new line up and a singer who is not too strong in the way of a live performance … but for the last 20 shows or so we were very good, in particular the last shows in Japan and Korea, but of course the press weren’t there to witness those.  So when Mike called me about a year and a half ago and asked me what is happening with the band, I told him nothing was happening as I was busy producing and mixing different bands in my studio because I needed to continue to earn money.  This information didn’t make him happy. He said he had to move on and get a new band because he also needed to earn a living, so he quit by himself.  Straight away, I called Jorn.”

I queried as to why, if Roland had been so unhappy with the live performances and the slating by the press, hadn’t he fired Mike after the tour?   “I’m a nice guy … I don’t like to fire people.  I tried to be nice about it, not to tell him direct, and in a way the problem resolved by itself.  He feels better about it, too, by saying he is quitting the band by himself, so everybody is happy.”  (Mike announced his departure from the band via his Myspace page on January 11th, 2009).

At this point I confessed to Roland that I’d had my reservations after I’d watched the first of the UK live performances of the tour in London and we digressed into a discussion around classic singers being very difficult to replace.  Journey without Perry; Queen without Freddie; and at the time of this interview, there had been the speculation of Aerosmith without Tyler!   “Well, yes, and we have two albums that the fans adore, then we came along with the third album and people were saying that the new singer is better.  Of course I wasn’t thinking that,” he mused.  “OK, it was beautiful to have the compliment, but I was thinking it’s not true.  Then there were other people saying quite the opposite … brutal comments, actually.”

So, what was it that made Roland pick up the phone and call Jorn?   “Well, the passion was so much in me that I said to myself either Jorn comes back or I quit altogether.  I just stepped back from everything and worked for myself with some small bands in Slovakia and the Czech Republic, keeping busy in my studio, making enough money to survive.”

Roland in classic pose

As to whether Jorn returned immediately, a wry smile appeared as Roland considered his answer.  “For six months I tried to get him back, but he kept saying let me think about it.  He talked to the other band members about his insecurity, and even they tried to convince him that this shouldn’t be the case, that he could be secure about the situation, even if he doesn’t agree one hundred percent about every song.  So it took me six months to bring him back to the band.”

I told Roland that one year after the Masterplan tour I saw Jorn playing with his band at Norway Rock Festival where, surprisingly for me at least, ‘Soulburn’ was in the set.  I confessed to tracking Jorn down after the show, eventually finding him at the bar (naturally), thanking him profusely for playing the song, and asking him, in true Belfast no holes barred style, why in the name of (insert expletive here) had he ever quit Masterplan in the first place.  “Every show he is playing this track,” agreed Roland, “and every show he was having people saying that the song is so great and asking him why he quit Masterplan …. although it’s not Jorn’s song, it’s ours,” he added by way of afterthought before continuing.  “Jorn is the kind of guy who needs people to tell him.  He listens more to his friends and when he was in the band the influence of his very close friends was bad for Masterplan.  I know his close friends (they are all big names in Norway but shall remain nameless here)… they don’t like neoclassical, melodic, double bass music.  Most of them are still rooted within the seventies.  His friends would ask him questions, then he would come to us with the same questions with the justification that his friends represent the average listener.  I am from Helloween, though, and I think I know best what is going to work for Masterplan in Japan or Germany.  Sometimes you try searching for something and you end up listening to everybody else’s opinion except for the people who know better.  On the other hand, sometimes it’s better to make mistakes that way.  It takes a while before you learn… before you realise what is good for you.  In Jorn’s case, he came back three years after we separated.  He was so wrapped up in the opinions of his friends that he never actually thought what was good for him, or his wife … funnily enough he never mentioned if his wife ever had an opinion, just his friends.  They always told him make your own solo album, have your own solo career, get your own band, and yet they are successful only in Norway!  Still, the ‘MkII’ album, even though it was a different singer, charted higher than any of Jorn’s albums.  Of course Jorn says ‘MkII’ is not a good album,” he laughed. “I could always argue and disagree with him, but I know he needs a positive vibe, so I’m not going to fight with him about chart positions or who is the more successful.  I’m still trying to convince him that he as yet hasn’t quite got as much experience as me …. he is just 42 (laughs) but he started late.  He isn’t at the same level as I was when I was in Helloween … I was 43 when I left Helloween.”

Six months is a long time to wait for a decision, so what else had Roland done during that time in his quest to persuade Jorn to return?  “I went to the Czech Republic for an Avantasia show supporting Def Leppard, and Jorn was there.  I asked if I could talk to him about Masterplan, so we met the evening before the gig and spoke for about 5 hours about whether or not there was a future for him with the band.  This was the first time we had really talked in many years, so it wasn’t easy, and we were both getting drunk.  Everything was cool, though, and the vibe was that we could definitely do something.  The next day, he said he wasn’t sure; he’d been thinking about it the whole night.  Then he did the Avantasia show and I thought to myself ‘what is this, it’s totally different to Masterplan’.  He was only doing 30 seconds or so on stage.  It was amazing.  He is not the same guy who started with Masterplan, and I told him so afterwards.  He put it down to doing the small spots on stage, plus I think drinking alcohol rather than smoking helps him to relax.  I didn’t see him after that as I was unable to make it to the Budapest show, but Axl (Mackenrott) and I had a good session and we had a couple of good rough versions of songs.  I asked Jorn if he could have a meeting at the beginning of January 2009 in Denmark where he was mixing a solo album with Tommy Hansen.  He agreed and we had some evenings working with him after he finished mixing.  During the day Axl and I worked alone on ideas, and then we worked with Jorn until late in the night.  We had three sessions, then we met again in Norway at Jorn’s place in March for ten days, just for arranging and writing songs, with the result that we had 14 songs altogether.  At that point he agreed to be part of the band again, but asked me not to make an official statement.”

So, Jorn wanted to come back, but didn’t want an official announcement.  Any particular reason?  Had Roland contested this at all?  “I wanted him to understand that he had all the freedom he needed, with no pressure, especially if he wasn’t sure whether everything would work out.  I told him that if there was anything that was not finished, he could finish it in my studio, then Oh God, it was the worst,” he groaned.  “He came to my studio in Slovakia to lay down the vocals, and had not prepared any lyrics.  We had four sessions from August to the end of October.  He wrote 90 – 95% of the lyrics in my studio.  He would wake up, have breakfast, come to the studio, sit in the studio, and instead of leaving me alone to be quiet and work with other bands, he would sit on the couch, writing, mini disc, headphones on (he mimics the actions), and I couldn’t do any work.  Then he would always stop and ask me what I think of each line, and I would think it doesn’t sound like English and tell him so!  Then he called his wife for an opinion, then his brother who teaches classic English.  They told him the same as me … no you can’t say it like that!  Then he would have a story for ten twenty minutes; he changed nothing, but tried to look like he was right ….that is how he is.  The process would take 6 – 8 hours, and he would start singing from 8 – 10 pm …. just two hours, during which he made ten or twenty versions while drinking beer and red wine, and I just joined him when he wanted to edit the tracks.  He is so focussed that he wanted to have each song completely finished before going to the next one.  When I said I couldn’t work any more, he would still tell stories for 2-3 hours, using more of my energy (laughs), but that is how he worked, and he enjoyed it.”  Visions of an Odd Couple scenario were emerging in my head and I asked Roland if he had ever begun to regret his decision.  “No, the result is all I care about.  It is not about how fast or how long it takes, or the process. (laughs)”

The people who were Masterplan fans will remember Jorn’s lyrics, generally based on stories from real life, but with a kind of gloss.  I asked what came first; the melody or the idea, or whether the ideas just happened to grow with the songs?   “Jorn starts with the choruses first, or the main hook,” explained Roland.  “He gets the idea from the hook then he creates the verses and bridges.  It’s very easy to create something from there.  I remember how hard it was to write songs in the past, so you should always start with the hook.”

Welcome to my kingdom!

New fans may think that because of Jorn’s Viking heritage the lyrics will be based around fantasy, but this album is quite realistic and hard hitting, which is characteristic of Masterplan as the songs tend to be centred around themes that are quite serious in nature.  As to whether this gave them the edge over bands, particularly in Germany, that could be considered their “competitors”, Roland was quick to confirm that he never compares Masterplan to other bands, especially not the likes of Gamma Ray (with tongue firmly in cheek here)!

I was intrigued to know how he felt about compressing 96 years of history into 4.5 minutes of a song (‘Lonely Winds of War’).  “I think people will be touched at how we can create a story from history in a short time.  As I said, everything Jorn was writing, he always asked me what I thought about it.  However we aren’t the SS, and I don’t want to be a Rammstein clone either,” he replied emphatically.

I quizzed him further about more good stories from the album.  “Well, I like ‘Blue Europa’, especially the ending”, he replied.  “It’s about the European Union.  Of course, with Jorn living in Norway he is not involved, but he liked the idea that something has happened to make Europe more or less one country … especially when you think of America.  Nobody likes the Euro so far, though, especially the UK.  You have kept yourselves separate, you bastards.” (laughs)

I asked if there was any particular aspect from the creation of this new album of which he was particularly proud.  “I am proud of the team work this time round,” he replied.  “Working with Jorn and with Axl together is something special to make this band sound better.  I think teamwork is always the key, but this time everything was more relaxed.  It was nice to go to Norway again, visiting Jorn in his private life … he could have said just pay me and I’ll come to Hamburg or whatever, but he is passionate.  I think you can hear it on the lyrics.  It is not easy when you make so many albums in your life and then making something else for Masterplan….”  I recalled that the reasons cited by Jorn for leaving the band were along the lines of the classic “musical differences” or “moving in different directions” and asked Roland if this had been resolved to any degree.  “Yes,” replied Roland emphatically.  “Before we even wrote songs we talked about it.  Axl and I had three or four songs written, but when Jorn returned I wanted to start fresh.  Jorn would recommend a song that he likes, and if Axl and I think it is a bit boring, or it sounds too much like his solo work, we keep it a little bit more open compared to our songs which is OK.  There is a fine line between boring, ok and good.”

Before the playback, Roland had explained that the album wasn’t quite finished; there was still some mixing to do, alongside some guitar solos he had yet to complete.  “I have so many studio jobs on at the moment that I have to take care of.  I am delaying Masterplan all the time because of other commitments, so it’s my fault.  I know I have solos to lay down, but any spare time is taken up with the other bands I am producing.  I wasn’t even sure I would finish the album on time; for example I am obliged to attend the Frankfurt music fair next week because I have an endorsement company for two years now and I have to go to represent them. They want pictures for advertising and marketing.  For now, I’m just concentrating on the guitar parts then in April the album will be finished.”  I asked if Andy Sneap was involved this time round. “No, Andy is too busy at the moment.  Finnvox, who mixed all the other albums, is mixing again – it’s important to keep a winning team.  I have mixed everything so far, and they will only need a further three days or so to complete the job.”

Roland has described himself in the past as the “captain of the team” or the “engine of the band” when it comes to Masterplan, and I asked him if, looking back, he had perhaps been driving things along too hard which may have contributed to the reasons for Jorn’s departure.  “No, I’m a team player,” he replied, “especially where the singer is concerned.  Technically I’m about singers.  I was always very sensitive in the past with Michael Kiske; never had any fights or disagreements with Andi Deris … it was just the other band members I sometimes had trouble with,” he added with a smile and by way of clarification.  “Singing is not an instrument, it’s a human thing, and if you piss people off you have trouble because they can’t sing any more due to being defensive about the situation.  You can tell a drummer or a bass player to play differently, and they can be pissed about it, but when it comes to the singer, well, it’s like telling a model that she looks shit, so she stands in front of a mirror and asks how can I change if there is nothing to change?  Guitars are different, but your voice is you.  You should never tell a singer your voice sucks or ask if they can do something differently.”

Time to stop pussyfooting around the issue and ask the question in a more direct manner … and risk the wrath of someone to whom this question has no doubt been posed a thousand times.  Why did Jorn leave Masterplan?  His reply was completely candid.  “I know why he left.  It wasn’t because of me.  There were two things.  First, the compromise with the style limitation.  Uli (Kusch) and I tried to tell him what was perfect for him but he disagreed with double bass, melodic power metal, etc.  The other thing was I think he had the solo career in his head because people had told him he didn’t need Masterplan, then he began to realise the commitment he had with his solo band, his contract with Frontiers, etc.  On the other side he had the situation with Uli who had written him a bad mail.  I wrote to Jorn explaining that it wasn’t anything to do with me, but that I had to keep the connection with my bandmate from the past … I still have the mail, actually.  Obviously Jorn didn’t answer my mail, but we always maintained our friendship.  I always invited him to Masterplan gigs and kept in touch with him.  It means a lot to stay in contact and he remembered this, and after three or four years, or whatever, he realised that I hadn’t done anything bad to him.  In fact, when Uli left the band, I called Jorn immediately and asked him to come back.   He thought about it for about a week, then went to play ProgPower in Atlanta, talked to his bandmates, they said you don’t need Masterplan.  If only he could make his own decisions, and not ask these people” he sighed in frustration.  “He is still connected to them, but he feels like they also make pressure and problems for him, so maybe that helps us now too.”

With the album finished now, can the fans expect to see any live shows in the not too distant future?  Roland’s reply was somewhat resigned.  “I hope so, but I’m not promising.  I’m saying late autumn, but Jorn says it has to be the right tour before he will do it.  A headlining tour should be a certain size of venue, or perhaps we will do a co-headliner.  Jorn won’t accept just anyone.  We have had many offers, but so far only unsuitable ones.  We left All Access and changed to another management company, but so far nothing they have found for us is that great, so we will try for late autumn, and the festivals for next year.”

I decided to pose a hypothetical question… what happens if the band is booked to play a festival quite high on the billing, and there is an argument about the set list.  What if Jorn has to sing a song he didn’t record, as in MkII?  “Well, the set list discussion is always going to be difficult … which songs are perfect live, which ones don’t work.  It’s always going to be a compromise.  For a singer it’s technically very difficult changing from one song to another.  It was difficult for me to understand until Jorn explained it to me.  It means that technically songs in the high range, for example ‘Enlighten Me’ or ‘Heroes’ we could possibly have trouble with because he’s not doing this range on the new album.  For myself, I would like not to have to miss any of the songs, but the problem is when you come to decide from the back catalogue.  As for ‘MkII’ he will probably do ‘Lost and Gone’.  He will also want to re-record the song to make it better.  I guess in a live setting people will enjoy it.  There may be one more from that album, but we have to decide that yet.”

The inevitable “downloading” question was next on my agenda.  I asked if, one day, it came to the point where 95% of the music was downloaded (legally or otherwise), what would be the way forward, in Roland’s opinion?  “Well, people expect quality, and this is not possible without money.  All the budgets are going down because of the downloads.  That’s why I took the risk to go to Slovakia rather than, say, London for example, as it is less expensive to live there, but as long as I can earn a living I don’t care.  Somehow, for the past 22 years I have been in the music business, I have managed to receive my salary.  OK, there have been some hard times, and some very good times, but at least I have been able to survive.”

I had already anticipated the answer to my final question … would Roland be likely to prevent Jorn from carrying on with his solo career?  “No, absolutely not, as long as he can fit it in around the Masterplan commitments.”

‘Time to be King’ is available now at all usual outlets.