A Visit to the Kingdom of the (Metal) Night with Bernhard Weiß (Axxis)

 Ina Martin    3 juni 2020

Ever since their formation in the early 1980s Axxis have been a band well-known and loved by European metalheads, their debut album, Kingdom of the Night, becoming the best-selling debut album by a hard rock band in Germany in 1989. They have done something few bands manage – staying relevant and authentic throughout 31 years of band history. Their songs don't shy away from painful issues like war, death, loss and the current state of the world. That, I believe, is one of the reasons for their ongoing success, together with dream team Bernhard Weiß (vocals) and Harry Oellers' (piano) superb songwriting, and, of course, Bernhard's outstanding vocal skill. When I asked him for an interview, I did not expect the lovely bonus of receiving a sound file, rather than typed-out replies. I tried to preserve the feeling of a good old-school backstage/bar rock’n’roll interview, and I hope everyone has as much fun reading as I had listening to it.

What was the most unusual venue you have played at?

Bernhard: Oh, there are so many unusual venues, for example the last time on the 70000 Tons of Metal. I think it’s very unusual to play on a ship, you know, the ship was shaking with the waves, and the wind was blowing your head away, and your instruments. Our drummer played very hard on the drums on the ship, in front of the pool, and the problem was that one of the cymbals flew away, in the direction of his neck, and it was really strange. That was a really unusual venue, 70000 Tons of Metal, but an interesting venue and a very, very great experience. On the other hand, I remember another venue in Italy, we had no power, we had nothing there, just a dirty club which smelled strange, but that’s rock and roll and I like every venue, it doesn’t matter how unusual they are, it’s interesting all the time.

I know you're working on a new studio album, what stage are you at right now?

Bernhard: We just did a break because of the Virus of a Modern Time release. We started the songwriting directly after the 70000 Tons of Metal and our Spanish tour – only a couple of shows in Madrid – and after that we directly started the songwriting for the new record. We have no plan at the beginning, we just write songs and see what happens. We get influenced by so many things around us, but the coronavirus was a very, very deep cut during this production and we did the Virus of the Modern Time release, and now we have to go into the production for 2021, and to be honest with you, it’s not easy to jump again inside songwriting from the outside, that’s sometimes a bit difficult and it needs some time to go into it. So, the stage right now is of songwriting, I hope we get it done as soon as possible.

There are many religious references in Axxis' lyrics, which makes me wonder, what is your view on god and religion?

Bernhard: Yeah, I believe in God, it helps me in so many critical situations, psychological situations, like when my father died, or when Harry’s child died, you know, it’s good to believe in something that helps you out, that your mind can find a solution for things that you cannot explain, like nature, regular things – people die, but for you it’s a very personal cut, very personal situation, and it doesn’t matter what you believe, if you believe in something, it helps you out, and it helps your mind to get through it.

You've had your own record label for the last 20 years, is that right? Was it difficult to set it up? What are the positive and negative sides to doing that as opposed to having a contract with a major label?

Bernhard: In the beginning, we had only a publishing company, called Phonotraxx Publishing, just to get our own copyrights back, to be independent from the music industry. The next step was that we got a recording studio, where we invested a lot of money in equipment, and the next step was the record label, Phonotraxx Records, and that makes us totally independent from record labels. I think now starts the real rock’n’roll, we can decide to release a cover song album, by the way, and it works, we don’t have to ask somebody else, we can do whatever we want, so I love this situation right now, it’s wonderful! With a record company, with a major record label for example, in the 80s it was wonderful, because they gave us a lot of knowledge, and we got a lot of experiences with licences, recoupable stuff, that sort of things, and we needed this period of time to get knowledge, to get more experiences with these issues, so I think now the situation with Phonotraxx Publishing is, for us, wonderful. For example, we have no time pressure right now, we can release a record like Virus of a Modern Time right in-between another production. If you get a contract with a record company and they say, “July we need all the songs,” we get pressure – and I hate pressure – and now we have no pressure, and we can take our time, and okay, maybe it takes a bit longer, but we are independent.

How did you cope with the lockdown, and how are things going now? Are you able to do more, or is it still pretty much the same due to the lack of events?

Bernhard: Usually we are planning the next production for 2021, and we’re in the songwriting process, so we earn no money during that, but we get a lot of summer festivals, like the Rock Hard Festival in Germany, and Alpenflair Festival, and other, smaller festivals, private festivals, but all these are gone down the drain now, we’ve got no income right now, and that’s a big problem. On the other hand, Spotify and the monthly income from the streaming services are helping us out in this situation, and Germany supported their artists, we get a kind of help from our government, 2000 Euros, just to get something to eat, you know, just to get the things rolling, and that’s wonderful. So, the lockdown is horrible for me, to be honest, it’s horrible for us also because the song writing process is really, really strange and difficult, because Harry is sitting in Düsseldorf, I’m sitting here in Lünen, my hometown, and we’re just sending files via Dropbox, via email, and that’s not an organic situation, you know, usually when we’re working together something strange happens, and I say, “Harry, what did you play there? It sounds great!” and he says, “But it’s only three accords, and I don’t know…” and I say, “Oh, but it sounds great,” and I miss these little magic moments, and I hope the record will sound good in the end of the day, so it’s a little bit strange for us.

Are some of the Axxis songs inspired by true events/news? Thinking of The Tragedy of Mr. Smith and Somebody Died at the Party, for example. Also, Angel of Death is such a sad song. If I may ask, was it inspired by a dark period in your life?

Bernhard: Yes, exactly. I think all of our songs are influenced by our situations that we’re going through, or that we survived, or that we recognised in our environment. For example, the first song, Tears of the Trees, that we got a record deal with was about the pollution and the rain in Germany, the forest. Also, the East-West conflicts happened in this period of time, we were writing songs like Love is Like An Ocean, that deals about the Wall in Germany in 1989. At the end of 1989 the Wall was gone and we were writing songs like Ships are Sailing, that dealt with the ships with the candle on them, the paper ships that people put on the Spree, the river going through Berlin, and we wrote My Father’s Eyes that dealt with the death of my father, we wrote Only God Knows, a song that deals with the death of Harry’s child, that was a very difficult situation for everybody. We wrote songs like Heavy Rain that deals with air pollution, or rain, tsunami, whatever, so all of our songs are inspired by things that happened in our environment, that happened to us. Usually the lyrics are important for us, but the main thing is, if people don’t listen to them very carefully, they should have fun with the song, we don’t want to send our problems to the world, but if people are listening carefully to our lyrics we try to find something special. For example, 21 Crosses is a very strong song, because 21 people died in Germany, at the Love Parade in Duisburg, in my area. Even my daughter was thinking about going to this Love Parade, and 21 people died, and nobody is taking the blame right now, nobody is responsible for it, and that’s really a shame, and that’s the reason even though we are a rock band, and it deals with techno music, we wrote a song about this, and I’ll never forget about it. In the first question you said about an unusual venue. Well, an unusual and strange gig was to play in front of the parents of the children who died during this Love Parade, and that was a strong situation for us, because I could not sing anymore, my throat was… I don’t know, under so much pressure, and that was a challenge to be on the stage.

Following from the previous question, when are you most creative? When you're feeling sad, or happy?

Bernhard: Aah, that's difficult, because sometimes I'm just... Harry says, "We'll have to start the song writing," and I'm just sitting in front of my Cubase, and my guitar, and nothing happens, you know. Sometimes that makes me crazy, because if I get a song in a day, or I get an idea during a day, it's a wonderful day, but if you're sitting in front of a blank piece of paper, and nothing happens, you know, that's really disappointing, and that's horrible, but the most creative situations are when something has happened, you know. It doesn't matter if it's good or bad, for example the politic situation right now, or all these conspiracy theories going around the world, and so many things have happened, how people react now to this situation with the coronavirus, they really influence my opinion about things, or maybe change some opinions about my kind of thinking, but... So, you cannot answer this question. It's happened, and sometimes happens, sometimes doesn't happen, and sometimes it's wonderful, and sometimes totally depressive, like I said, if you get a blank piece of paper, and you get no cool idea on it. But that's songwriting, that's our job.

How do you see the initial period of the return of touring? There will be quite a lot of challenges, I think. Personally, I think concerts could only happen initially if masks are made obligatory inside every venue.

Bernhard: Yeah, that's my problem, because we got an offer right now, to play in front of cars. We got a cinema here with cars, an outside cinema, I don't know the word in English, and I cannot play in front of cars, that's really... I don't know, it looks strange, and I have to look at the eyes of the people, I need to know if they like it or not, I need spontaneous situations that happen, and I can deal with them on stage to make a show unique for me, not just playing my songs down... You know, if we're playing in front of cars, you can put a big screen on stage and just put a blue-ray of Axxis in it, and it's the same for me, you don't need humans to play on stage. If you're playing with humans on stage, you need humans in the audience. I think, even if they're with masks, if you need the social distancing, I cannot imagine how this should work, you know. It's strange, because you need to drink a beer, then you have to go back to the bar, you need to go very close to people, to the bar, and I cannot imagine how this will work... On the 3 October we have our first show, in Lünen, my hometown, and it's still there, and we didn't cancel it, because I hope we will get it done. We got 200 tickets sold right now, and  I think it's a very small venue, it can take 400 people, and I'm not sure, maybe we'll just leave it with that 200 and see what happens, to make this show. But for me it's better to play in front of a huge audience, or small, but stuffed audience, that's sometimes better than playing in front of, I don't know, a couple of people, and I'd do it, but it's not really rock-'n'-roll. Even, two years ago we were playing in a theatre, you know, and I like the theatre, it's a great, great stage, and cool special effects, because it's this huge stage, this deep stage, but on the other hand the people were sitting in front of us, and... Even if it's stuffed and sold out, it's strange to play in front of people who are sitting on chairs, for us as Germans. I know in America it's a usual thing, in the Kiss Live Tour, for example, my first record, I saw that there were chairs in the audience, but for us it's strange.

What are the best and worst aspects of being a professional musician in a band? I think a lot of people see it as a very glamorous thing, when the reality is quite different, isn't it?

Bernhard: Yeah, that's right. Sometimes people in the audience get more money than we do, but on the other hand, there's one thing I really appreciate of being a professional musician – the freedom, the independence, and I can wake up whenever I want, I do not have stress, I'm my own boss, you know, and that's... You cannot count this with money, it's wonderful, this is a privilege, and even if you're earning less money than the people in the audience sometimes, it's a wonderful life, and I really appreciate it. And, to be honest with you, on one hand, when we were starting in 1989, and I got a big amount of money on my bank account, I felt a little bit... a kind of shame, because my father was working so hard, he was a carpenter, and he was working so hard for the living, and to give us money, and to give us a good education, and then I got this record, Kingdom Of The Night, and the record company, EMI, gave me 200 Deutschmark – in this period of time about 1000 Euros – and I felt... a little bit of shame, to be honest, because it was just a record, and I had fun recording this, and everything, and then I got this big amount of money. My father lived with this money for, I don't know, 2-3 years. So, this is one hand, you earn sometimes a lot of money, huge money, and then you get two years when you get no money, you know, or less money. So, it's like, as an independent guy, it's a regular thing, you know, you cannot count on the money for the next day, or in the next year, you have to fight for every year. But you get used to it after 30 years. At the beginning, I must say, it was hard for me, because I don't know what will happen the next year, and I was a little bit scared about the situation in the next year, but every time I was worried about next year, you get used to it and then it's gone, this feeling, because you realise that sometimes a new door opens, other things happen, another opportunity, another possibility is on the way, and now it's 30 years, and we're still living from music, only from music, and it's wonderful.

I recently learned of the platform called Cameo, where people can pay to receive messages for friends or loved ones from the celebrities participating in it. Apparently, it's been going on for a while, but I somehow missed it completely. Would you ever consider participating in it, and what are your thoughts about that concept?

Bernhard: I never heard about this platform. It sounds strange, or fake... Fake messages... Sometimes we got fans who said, "My brother’s got a birthday and is a big Axxis fan, can you say some greetings on the phone?" or whatever, so if we have time, we're doing this, but if you pay for this, that's strange. Okay, if they give me one million dollars, I wouldn't say no, but it sounds strange. That's a strange thing in the internet business, they are trying this kind of concepts making money with social experiments... That's... I don't know, that's strange for me. I would say, to answer your question, no, I would not.

Is there a question you've always wanted to be asked but no one has ever asked?

Bernhard: Oh, let me think about it. We get so many questions, you know. There's one question that I'm always missing, nobody asked me, "Can I give you one million dollars for free?" or something like that. No one asked me that before... But if you want, no problem (laughs). Anyway, we get so many different questions, that... We get a lot of interesting questions, by the way. The one-million-dollar question, nobody asks me.

As we come to the end of this interview, can you perhaps share a little secret about the new album with our readers?

Bernhard: Oh, that's difficult! Because the secrets are developed right now by ourselves, even without our knowing what's going on, what will happen by the end of the day, but to be honest, what I can give you... We got some working titles. It doesn't make sense, just to name the songs, you know, we got... All Eyes On You, Lord Of Darkness,Ride Fast, Island Burns, We Don't Go, Girls On The Wall, whatever that means (laughs), Train Don't Stop, Little Piece, Heart Of Gold, Little Kid, Rebel Of Steel, Am I Young, Stand Up And Fight, ah, well, that's... Battle Of My Life, oh, that sounds interesting... So, they are the working titles, and usually 99% of these titles are erased and are going down the drain, but that's the stage we are right now. How many ideas do we have? Twenty-five... Okay, I think 50% is shit, but maybe 20% are really cool, and we need some more ideas, some cool ideas, and then we're starting the recordings. So, that's... yeah, that's the stage right now, and the stage we're living in right now. So, maybe it's a secret, I don't know, but at the end of the day, we are surprising ourselves with what's going on, during this development of a new record, so we'll see what happens.

So, have a nice day, Ina, and thank you so much.

You can visit the band's website, www.axxis.de, for more information and merchandise.