Stefan Kauffmann and Ronny Gleisberg about the third Stormwitch album Stronger than Heaven
During the 80’s, Germany was the leading force considering the European thrash and speed movement. One of the earliest speed outfits was Stormwitch. The band unfortunately didn’t manage to reach any worldwide success, but they gained cult status, especially in the Eastern block. Their third and best record, Stronger than Heaven was released 35 years ago and former guitarist Stefan Kauffmann and bassist Ronny Gleisberg shared their thoughts about the album.
Stefan, the band’s career started as Lemon Sylvan. Can you sum up this period?
Stefan Kauffmann: We were young, passionate about music and our idols were bands like UFO, Scorpions, Deep Purple, AC/DC, Rainbow, Status Quo, Lynyrd Skynyrd.
What was the line up, what type of music did you play, how did you sound like etc.?
S. K.: We played more rock than heavy metal. Although we were already writing our own songs back then, we covered many songs from other bands. I think our first drummer was called Peter Joost, after that Eddy Galaida was on the drums, who had a more jazz-influenced style of playing. Lemon Sylvan’s bassist was Jürgen Wannenwetsch (Wanschi) in the first years of Stormwitch, who was replaced in 1983 by Thomas Gleisberg (Ronny Pearson).
In 1981 you changed the moniker into Stormwitch. Who came up with the name?
S. K.: I think Harald Spengler aka Lee Tarot came up with this idea. Storm should stand for the music and Witch for the lyrics, which were about witches, ghosts, demons and so on.
At the early/mid ’80s a lot of new heavy/speed metal bands were popping up such as Grave Digger, Helloween, Running Wild, Avenger/Rage, Atlain, Warlock, Stormwind, Vampyr, Axe Victims, Brainfever, Steeler etc. from every part of Germany. Did you keep an eye on what’s going on in the German underground scene at this point? Were you familiar with these bands at all?
S. K.: Back then there weren’t as many rock bands as there are now. The heavy metal scene in Germany was only just emerging. We tracked the German metal scene as well as we could and we had contact with some bands and met at concerts and festivals. But we always wanted to go our own way and oriented ourselves more towards international bands like Iron Maiden, Judas Priest or Saxon.
Ronny Gleisberg: Of course I observed the German metal scene very closely and got to know many of the musicians personally because I was on the same stage with many of them. Above all Matt Sinner, Ralf Scheepers, Kai Hansen, etc. By the way: after I left Stormwitch, I could have played for Udo Dirkschneider, but unfortunately I cancelled because I had to move to Düsseldorf and I didn’t want that at the time.
With these huge amount of bands that started their career at those times, was the situation in Germany the same as in Britain with the N.W.O.B.H.M. movement? Did you like the N.W.O.B.H.M. groups?
S. K.: I believe the N.W.O.B.H.M. got many musicians in Germany to found bands, although some German bands had already international success, such as Scorpions and Accept. In any case, the first Iron Maiden album hit us like a bomb. This influence cannot be ignored on the first Stormwitch albums either. 🙂
R. G.: Yes, that was the same situation. I like a lot of UK bands, there are a lot of very talented musicians, songwriters and bands.
Would you say that the classic Stormwitch line up was established with the addition of bassist Ronny Gleisberg and drummer Peter Langer?
S. K.: As for Peter, you could say that. With his entry our music got faster and harder and at about the same time the name change to Stormwitch took place. Jürgen Wannenwetsch (Wanschi) was also a founding member of Stormwitch, even if he was no longer in the band on the first albums.
Were they immediately recruited or were there auditioned other musicians as well? What about their musical background?
S. K.: Peter had previously played in a dance band and wanted to switch to rock music. Ronny had played bass in another regional heavy band and was known to us from there. Maybe we had other bass players in our sights, but in the end Ronny won the race because he was very motivated and a top showman, even though very young.
R. G.: I founded my first band Axcid with school friends in 1981 and we even played a few concerts. Peter was a founding member in 1981, I only joined in 1983.
From what I know, you recorded a demo; did you shop it around to attract any labels’ interests?
S. K.: Yes. Unfortunately this demo with 4 songs is lost. I don’t remember if it was officially sold. If so, then only to a very limited extent. It was recorded mainly for applications to record companies.
How and when did Gama sign the band? What kind of contract did they offer you? Did they promise a lot of things, such as touring support, advertisements in magazines, promotion etc.?
S. K.: I think it was Harald and our first manager, Marc-Eric Fronmüller (Biebe), who landed the record deal with GAMA. As far as I can remember, there was some advertising in the rock and metal magazines for us and the other GAMA-bands. At the time, I wasn’t really interested in contractual matters, I mainly wanted to have fun and make music. Of course we wanted to become famous and make a living from music, which unfortunately didn’t quite work out. Back then we were happy to have a record deal and to make our music accessible to more people.
R. G.: We signed the record deal with GAMA in 1984. The company promised print advertising in all the big magazines and did so, and that we would do a big tour, and we did that in 1986 with Killer from Switzerland and Stranger from Germany.
Do you think that with the first two albums, Walpurgis Night and Tales of Terror, Stormwitch managed to make a name for themselves and to expand the fanbase?
S. K.: Yes, Walpurgis Night and Tales of Terror were definitely milestones in Stormwitch history and maybe also in the early German metal scene. With the first two albums we definitely got better known. In retrospect, I would have liked a better sound, but our time and budget were limited.
How about the nicknames that you began to use at that time?
S. K.: That was a crazy idea from Harald and Marc-Eric to be better accepted abroad. I was against it at the time, but was outvoted. Now I think it’s funny when people call me Mr. Merchant. But today I wouldn’t get a pseudonym anymore, even if I’m often confused with Stefan Kaufmann (ex-Accept).
R. G.: We wanted to become internationally known and it’s easier with English-sounding names than with German Mr. Gleisberg! 🙂
When did you start working on your third album? What about the songwriting process compared to its predecessors?
S. K.: The songwriting process wasn’t much different from the previous albums. Harald and I always had a fixed plan. We two played ideas and riffs to each other, Harald came up with a vocal melody, a song title and the text and then we presented the result to the other band members. After that, only the arrangement was fine-tuned. Some of the songs from Stronger than Heaven were probably written at the end of 1985 and may have been played live before they were released.
Were you prepared to record the material, when during January/February 1986 you entered the Spygel Studio in Kirchheim/Teck?
R. G.: Yes, we were.
S.K.: I think we practiced the songs before and were prepared. Of course, studio recordings are always different from playing a song live. But mostly everything worked fine. Only with Allies of the Dark the instruments were partly recorded later, which can also be recognized by a slightly different sound. But I don’t know anymore what the reason was. Maybe the recording time wasn’t enough or the song wasn’t quite finished.
How did the recording sessions go?
R. G.: They went very well.
S. K.: I can’t remember everything. But we tended to record during the day and often went to a restaurant for lunch. Good food and drink have always been important for us. 🙂
Around this time what made you to start wearing old costumes from the baroque era of the 17th and 18th centuries and to name yourselves as the Masters of Black Romantic?
S. K.: We wanted to change our image away from the classic leather and rivets outfit, also to make a better difference from other bands. The texts were inspired by authors such as Edgar Allen Poe, Bram Stoker, Oscar Wilde, etc., the so-called Black Romanticism in literature. The costumes went well with it and were something special. First we borrowed the jackets from a clothing rental shop and later had them made by a seamstress ourselves.
R. G.: That was Harald Spengler’s idea, he was a big fan of Edgar Allen Poe and enchanted by the magic of the Black Romantic.
Did you partly change your musical direction with this third record?
R. G.: No.
S. K.: I don’t see that many differences in musical style between Tales of Terror and Stronger than Heaven. I think this album was still much influenced from the N.W.O.B.H.M., maybe with exception of the title song. Indeed the next two albums got more melodic and a little more commercial, especially Eye of the Storm.
Was it a natural progression or a conscious decision?
S. K.: I think at this moment it was no conscious decision, even though we liked also more commercial bands and artists like Bon Jovi, Heart, Bryan Adams, Meat Loaf etc.
Do you agree with that Stronger than Heaven included a more melodic sound and a partly new image: the fantasy and pirate style became more dominant?
S. K.: Partly I agree with you. There was more fantasy in the songs (for example Eternia and Ravenlord), but still some traditional horror stories like Rats in the Attic, Jonathan’s Diary, Slave to Moonlight, Allies of the Dark. The pirates were already on board at the first album with the song Skull and Crossbones.
In your opinion, besides this change in your image, did the incredible quality of this album obviously help the band a lot to move another step forward?
S. K.: Each of the first albums brought us a little further. We became better known, especially abroad, but probably more with The Beauty and the Beast in 1987. At that time we also began touring in Hungary and playing at festivals in what was then the Eastern block.
Rats in the Attic, Slave to Moonlight, the title track or Ravenlord are absolutely highlights, some of the best composed heavy/speed metal tunes of all time, aren’t they?
S. K.: I wouldn’t call these songs speed metal. But without question, they are definitely highlights and I think the band was artistically at the peak of their career at this time. After The Beauty and the Beast we still had a good time, but the line-up changes and management problems bothered us.
R. G.: Well, I like Rats in the Attic and Ravenlord, maybe the most underrated songs ever. 🙂
Jonathan’s Diary is the most complex song of you, was it written in the vein of previous tracks such as Skull and Crossbones or Sword of Sagon?
S. K.: The song is about the fictional person Jonathan Harker from the first Dracula novel by Bram Stoker. So it’s a classic horror story that Harald and I set to music here. Like the story of the novel, the song should increase from beginning to end, so we added the rhythm changes.
R. G.: No! Harry and I wanted to write a song in the direction of Iron Maiden’s Phantom of the Opera! I think we succeeded very well and this is still my absolute favorite song of ours!
Did you have any songs written, that didn’t make it to the record in the end?
S. K.: I think all of the finished songs from that period were put on the album. There might have been ideas that didn’t make it onto the album, but not entire songs that were left out of consideration. That was different in the beginning. In the first years we probably had 10 to 15 songs that only appear in concert recordings or were not recorded at all.
Was Stronger than Heaven a turning point in the history of Stormwitch and did you gained better popularity? Do you think that a third record is crucial in any band’s career?
S. K.: I don’t know if the third album is always the decisive one in a band career. There are also bands that have been and are successful with debut albums. It depends on a lot of factors: quality, promotion, budget, etc. Stormwitch’s popularity grew from album to album during this period, with The Beauty and the Beast being the most successful one, I think.
R. G.: I don’t think so!
The reissue of the album by Battle Cry Records contains four bonus live tracks. Are these demo ones that weren’t previously officially released?
S. K.: The four bonus songs are live recordings that were apparently recorded at the Rockfabrik Ludwigsburg on August 29, 2014, about a year and a half before the studio recordings for Stronger than Heaven. These are songs from the early days that were never actually released as a studio version. At that time, for example, Beware of Demons was always a highlight that should not be missing at any concert. I’m not sure, but I think this song and Longboats on the Horizon were also on the first Stormwitch demo, which sadly is lost.
In support of the record you went on tour with Stranger and Killer, that was the Young Blood Metal Tour. What do you recall of it? Did you get on well with those outfits?
S. K.: As far as I can remember we had a lot of fun on tour, also with the other bands. The costumes were a bit warm on stage, but otherwise we felt comfortable in the new outfit.
How do you view that thanks to Hammerfall, who covered Ravenlord, Stormwitch fortunately then became known by the younger generations as well?
S. K.: The cover version of Hammerfall was of course a stroke of luck for the band and underpinned their cult status, even though I was no longer in the band at that time. Oscar Dronjak and Joacim Cans are big Stormwitch fans. I have contact with Oscar every now and then. He also played a solo on the first Witchbound album, on the song Keep the Pyre Burning.
R. G.: Hammerfall covered our song very well.
Unfortunately Harald Sprengler passed away in 2013. How do you want him to be remembered?
S. K.: Stormwitch would not have existed without Harald. Until the end of the eighties he was always the driving force behind the band. Harald has been a great idol for me since school and he made me learn to play the guitar. In my opinion, the years with Harald at Stormwitch were the best. Until I left in 1992 I still had a great time with the band and the new members Andy Jäger (Andy Hunter), Martin Albrecht (both bass) and Harald’s successor Wolfgang Schludi on lead guitar.
R. G.: Harald was a genius, a wonderful, awesome human, and a great mentor to lots of musicians out there. I still miss him!!!
Stefan/Ronny, thank you very much for your answers! What are your closing words for the Hungarian readers?
S. K.: Stay heavy and healthy and check out my new band Witchbound. On April 30th – Walpurgis night – our second album End of Paradise will be released!
R. G.: The biggest thing I was able to experience in my life was the Hungary Tour 1987! I never experienced so much enthusiasm again afterwards! I love you for that… Thank you very much! Kiss kiss.