There have been so many phenomenal musicians in the history of hard rock, but there are not many that have the history of success as not only a musician, but as a producer/engineer as well. From the beginning of Pink Cream 69, one of Germany’s Premier Hard Rock acts, to the latest masterpieces Firewind’s “Immortal’s” and Place Vendome’s “Close To The Sun.” Dennis Ward is garnering critical acclaim as a producer and engineer who is cementing his impression in the Hard rock world’s walk of fame. Here is my interview with someone that I consider the best of the best, Dennis Ward……………..
FASTLANE: From your standpoint as a producer, how do you feel about the new album “Close To the Sun” now that the finish product is out? It seems like each album just keeps getting better and better and this one is fantasic?
DENNIS WARD: I’m happy with it. Me and Michael, we are really in to sonics. We’re geeks, we’re nerds, we both collect stuff like vintage gear. I build microphones and he collects stuff. Actually, the mic that he uses on the album I built. We’re into trying stuff out and trying to go a little farther. The last 4 years we’ve gotten really tight on that subject. We wanted to go a little bit more organic, try to take it to the limit. Even though the world is based on computer technology, we tried to get away from that a bit and that means we tried to get away from like, plugins and use real gear for a change. We wanted to go to the next level so we really took care this time, sonically really trying to go all out. We recorded in the studio where I record often, at least the drums and I do a lot of stuff in my own studio. We said”Let’s really Try to go a step farther this time” and not just make it good and let’s see if we can really go all the way. That meant to keep the AOR vibe, that was really important to us. We didn’t want to get metal on this, we got enough metal, you know, on other projects. We wanted to keep it AOR, even though some of the songs are metalized. We wanted to back it up a little bit; not get to rough and tough and not get to mean and keep it comfortable for the listener. The AOR listener doesn’t want to hear metal, that’s why he likes AOR. So, we really tried to stick to that. That was our goal.
FASTLANE: Whats nice is that you and Michael both have the metal backgrounds, but you also have the good, melodic style; the Pink Cream, Unisonic and Place Vendome. Its a great album that I really cannot stop listening to.
DENNIS WARD: Well thank you. That’s great to hear. That means that we reached our goal.
FASTLANE: The production is huge again and it has all of the hooks and everything, what were you guys looking for as far as song structure?
DENNIS WARD: “Don’t bore us gettin to the chorus.” If I ever do anything with songs, especially when they come in from outside writers, if they complain about anything, first thing they complain about is that I’ve castrated the intro, that I’ve shortened the arrangement and that I’ve removed the solo. Because, what it comes down to, a Place Vendome record, in end effect, is a solo record of Michael Kiske with the difference being that all of the songwriters are 3rd party. We want to make sure that the vocals come over and that’s really it. The music is good. We need good music to hone everything up, but you’re not gonna find to many 2 minute long intro’s and exaggerated solo parts, stuff that’s just not necessary for a vocal album. It’s a vocal album. We are trying to promote Michael Kiske as a singer. It’s not even a band. It’s me with Uwe helping when he can on guitar. The only permanents so far have been Michael and me and Gunther on keyboards. Dirk has only been on the last 2 albums on drums. The whole focal point is on Michael. Really that’s it. When you know that it’s real easy to work. It’s easy as a producer to say, very quickly, “I’m Taking That Out,” “I’m Shortening This.” “I’m Not Gonna Bore The Listener.” Give the people what they want to hear and that would be Michael Kiske.
FASTLANE: Plus, it has to make it easy to work when you have a guy like Michael with a voice like his that can pretty much sing anything.
DENNIS WARD: True, he can sing basically anything.
FASTLANE: I’ve been following the stuff that you produced over your career and I was amazed at some of the stuff that I’ve been listening to for years. Vanden Plas and the Pink Cream stuff. When you’re producing an album is there a certain process or routine that you like to follow or is it different with every project?
DENNIS WARD: There’s always some basic rules. First of all we have to define producer. Producer isn’t what it used to be. A Producer is probably the guy that paid for the product in the old days. Then in the 80’s the producer became the overseer and the director and had the last say about stuff. So he might not even have been in the studio often. He just stopped by to complain or say “Do This” or “Don’t Do That,” while the engineer took over. Then the producer turned into the guy that was basically directing and he was probably the engineer as well around the 90’s. The producer can be, in the case of Place Vendome, I am the musician as well and sometimes the song writer to. It’s also common in popular music where you’ll have a Timberlake, he’s not only going to be the songwriter, the performer, the producer, he’s probably got a part of the publishing company as well, I don’t know. You’ve gotta wear a lot of hats. In the case of Place Vendome is basically just me and Michael and we decide everything and we just go for it. We don’t have to ask for other opinions which is a nice thing. I only ask some of the musicians their opinions if I’m just not very sure and that doesn’t happen often. In a case of when I am producing a band with 5-6 or whatever members you’re dealing with a democracy and sometimes that is not very comfortable. It’s not in the interest of the music unfortunately. In the 80’s you had some monarch style producers that said “My Way Or the Highway.” Like or not, sometimes those are the most successful albums made. It really depends on with whom I’m working with or what I’m working with. There are no rules.I just try to think what do I have and what do I have to work with, how long do I have to do it and when do I have to deliver. Then I base everything around that. I have to play it by ear depending on what I am doing.
FASTLANE: I have had the chance to interview Gus G and Paul Logue from Eden’s Curse and they mentioned how great that it was to work with you. You reputation as a producer/engineer is really getting out there which is fantastic. When these bands come to you, how do you decide what projects that you are going to take on?
DENNIS WARD: First of all, I gotta be honest and say that I’m involved not very often as a producer these days. I’m more of a technician. Doing a lot of mixing and mastering, quite honestly these bands have no budgets. They literally can not afford it. They can’t afford anything. I’ve even done like pre-productions or guided a little bit because they have to do it themselves. It’s a shame. What can I say. It’s completely worth it to work with a producer if you’re a band who are really not sure or you do feel 100% sure about doing what you’re doing. I have done a couple of productions a year in the last 4 or 5 years and usually it’s something that I am personally involved with. Something like Gus G or Firewind is really an exception. It doesn’t happen that often. That came into play because I was also co-songwriting with Gus and it just sorta made sense because I was already involved. When you get some of these younger bands in and its unfortunate when you really have nothing and you want to make a record the only way to do it is jump in the fire and give it a shot. It happens. You’re probably gonna get burned, but you gotta try something. Its true. All of the bigger bands still have producers or one company guy in the band taking over.
FASTLANE: Coming up thru the ranks like you have, who are some of the people that you consider your mentors as a musician as well as a producer?
DENNIS WARD: I haven’t had the opportunity to work with a whole lot of people, but my first producer Dirk Steffens, the first producer of Pink Cream, he opened my eyes to a lot of things and I learned the basics and fundamentals from him. Then I would just read in interviews about other people and how they did stuff and I was just a fan of production like Jimbo Barton and Bob Rock on the rock side. George Martin, I was always amazed by him on the technical aspect. Not only because he was really, really good at what he did, but the guy did with the technical possibilities that I would’ve had on a 4 track tape recorder when I was 18, you know. That’s pretty damn amazing. I’ve been a fan of a whole lot of things as far as producers go. Mutt Lange, he’s also a guy that I say can do literally anything, literally. It’s a hard question to answer because I have never been completely hooked on any one producer. I’ve only had the chance to work with a couple of people. I did a job one time at the famous Dierks Studio in Hanover where like Twisted Sister and Scorpions recorded. I saw Dieter Dierks at a session where he literally, like in the 80’s, he walked in, listened to something for a couple minutes, complain a little bit, tell the engineer to do something and leave and say he’d come back tomorrow to check on it. Not much to learn there. I’ve worked with a few engineers, I haven’t had the big opportunity, but what I have had is the opportunity to see stuff that I didn’t like. I’ve learned from that too. I figured if I didn’t like it with him there’s no reason to try it myself. It is a lot of learning by doing. I’ve had the opportunity to work at some big studios and see other producers work, on the side. That’s always interesting to watch. It all comes down to the basics. First, being sure of yourself and having a real opinion about something and not just saying something to say something because people expect you too. Leave good enough alone and um, I remember reading where Mutt Lange in an interview once that probably the hardest part about producing a song with a band is not actually the production, but convincing the band to remove all of the stuff that sucks. You could have the best song in the world, but if there is one sucky part in it, the whole song sucks. If the band believes that the song is their baby and then you say that there baby has a 3rd arm and you need to get rid of this thing. They don’t want to hear that though. They think that the 3rd arm is something special. “We’re different, we’re special!” “No, it’s crap!!!” “Get rid of it! “It’s doing the song no justice.” Sometimes its a very uncomfortable situation, but that’s the way it goes sometimes, you know.
FASTLANE: They need to kinda have to believe what you say because they hired you on to do this. The need to say “This is the reason that we hired him on. He’s doing what is best for us.”
DENNIS WARD: I’ve worked with bands where they totally accept that. There’s also bands that accept it too much and they expect me to do everything. In a democracy, I’m just trying to help the guys to decide. “Hey, we are not happy with this part.” I just try to help them come up with ideas. It’s not my job to say everything sucks, let’s do it differently. If everything sucked, I probably wouldn’t do the job. That has happened with bands, especially in the 80’s.We got a bunch of good lookin guys here who can play a couple of notes, let’s make a band. Here Mr. Producer make sure that they sound good at the end. I’ve never really had to do that. I’ve had some awful stuff that I just gave up on. LOL. I’ve never had to go that far. When I’m working with a band it’s like let’s do this together, let’s agree on things. Let’s use our ears and our opinions and just try to come up with the best stuff that we can. If anything comes in to question we discuss it and try to work it out. I’m like a coach at the end of the day. A director. If the drummer and the singer hate each other. They don’t like this and he don’t like that, they have to tell it to somebody and that’s me.
FASTLANE: You brought it up earlier about Pink Cream and like I said, I’m a big fan. I was listening to “One Size Fits All” which is one of my favorites. The band back then, 89 – 91, back then, you guys sounded huge. When you throw in a Pink Cream album then and even now, I mean, it really stands out. Which I think says a lot about you as a musician and you as part of the production and how well you guys work together it’s amazing.
DENNIS WARD: Thank you. We’ve all just been doing it so long it’s routine. We’re like a married couple here. LOL.
FASTLANE: How about as far as any things coming down the line? With the new Place Vendome album out, is there any plans for anything coming down the road that you are working on, like a new Pink Cream album?
DENNIS WARD: I’m actually working on the new Pink Cream right now, we are in the recording process now. We want to have this done by the end of May.
DENNIS WARD: Or early May. I’m not sure what out deadline is here, I have to check, but it’s in the works. I’m also writing songs with Gus for his solo album. I’ve got a couple jobs here and there, mixing and mastering. I’m going to continue writing songs on the side for the next Unisonic album, eventually. I really can’t say anything unless it’s sign, sealed and delivered. I can’t really mention anything yet.
FASTLANE: Is Place Vendome strictly a band that just puts out studio albums or is it a band that does live shows as well?
DENNIS WARD: No shows. It’s strictly a studio project, but for a lot of reasons. First of all, in the beginning we did it,Michael agreed to do it just as a studio project because he was just not interested in touring, back then, not interested whatsoever. Then he started doing this Avantasia thing at it slowly got his interest back then we made another record. Then we started Unisonic and we actually started playing some Place Vendome songs because we didn’t have any. Now it’s at the point he’s doing the Pumpkins United Tour and there’s just no point it makes no sense to do it. The logistics of doing it would be a lotta work and there’s to many other things going on and quite honestly we benefit from doing other things. It’s not fair and I don’t want it to sound hard or be mean to the fans or stuff like that, but I am very sure, at least here in Europe, that’s what we have to base everything on, because we can’t just get up and fly anywhere and do a tour. We would not really get large clubs full. It just doesn’t look good for an artist, especially in the case of a Michael Kiske who’s gonna be doing a tour playing in front of 50-60,000 people in arena’s and then go play a club of 6-700 people that’s not even full, that’s not gonna come off very well. He said that if he did it, he would definitely not do Helloween stuff on the side to keep a few fans happy. He wouldn’t want to disappoint anybody and it gets really complicated, so it sorta makes sense just not to do it. It could always change, you never know. It would be difficult to put it together with the band as it is now.
FASTLANE: Are you starting to see a revival in the audiences? I know that it has always been big over in Europe, but we are starting to notice the energy picking up here in the states. We kinda had that lull, but now the interest is being generated and I’m really looking forward to what its gonna be like a few years from now for you guys here in the states.
DENNIS WARD: That would be nice. We would not have anything against it. I played twice in the states with Pink Cream 69. I believe once in New York in 1991 and that was more of a showcase kinda show. It was a good show. We tried to work out a tour several times, especially in the late 80’s – early 90’s and just nobody would have us. Nobody would support us. No promoters would have us. We were as interesting as dry bread. Nobody gave a damn. We’ll see how things pick up. I know that some bands have been doing things over there. Maybe we get lucky. We’ll see.
FASTLANE: I always wish the best for you guys, not only from the promotional end of it, but from a fans perspective. That’s where it all started for me. I want to see the bands do well. I love the music and I appreciate what you guys do.The passion that you have and the quality of the material, it’s exceptional and it just keeps getting better.
DENNIS WARD: Well thank you. We keep doing it because we love it. We’re not in it for the chicks anymore. LOL. Its definitely something that I enjoy doing. I’m happy with the chance to do anything right now in this business. We also would like to play all over the place we’re actually going to give it some effort this time to try to do more play more and maybe get lucky and get a chance to come over. It would be really fantastic. I can tell you now that nobody would have a problem with it.We look forward to trying to get it off the ground again.
FASTLANE: How about any last words? Is there anything that you would like to get out to the fans?
DENNIS WARD: To the Place Vendome fans, enjoy the album. Comment whenever you can. Michael is very interested in what his fans think about him in this genre of music. How’s he coming over? If we were to do another record, what kind of stuff would you want to hear? This is really something that we are very interested in. This is really a fun thing for us. I can honestly say that we don’t do this to get rich. This is definitely not a project that we do to line our pockets. Michael Kiske, a lot of people don’t know this, is a huge AOR fan. He’s also like the biggest Elvis Presley fan, period. I got him for his birthday last time, a guy was getting rid of some memorabilia so I got him a lock of hair, signed albums from the manager, pictures and stuff. A grand worth of stuff. It turns out the guy was a musician and I made a deal with him to play on his record to have all of this stuff. LOL.
FASTLANE: That is a great story.
DENNIS WARD: That was his birthday present. I mean he’s a huge fan. He’s not just Mr Metal, a lot of people don’t realize that. They also think that he hates metal which was one of the things going around that people twisted, because it’s just not true. We get a kick out of all the metal bands and Michael is just a music lover. He loves all kinds of music, you know.He loves the old stuff because it gives him a feeling that he can’t get from the new stuff. Its the nostalgia. Remember the times sitting in the back of the truck somewhere, sure its gonna be a better song for you because you got these memories attached to it. He likes a good song when its a good song. He’ll be the first to say “I like that song,” if he really likes it, doesn’t matter what genre it is.
FASTLANE: All of what you are saying comes across in this new album. I was just thinking about “Breathing.” That was the song that hit me right away. That song is brilliant.
DENNIS WARD: I really like the way he sang on that song. Michael also worries about how he comes over, which is very critical. It’s really important because I also know musicians who really don’t give a shit how they come over. Either they don’t hear it or their not critical enough. Michael won’t let something go out unless he’s really happy with it. It’s a passion for him. It’s important for people to hear him how he hears himself.
FASTLANE: That’s the level of professionalism that sets him apart.The guys that care the most are the best and they bring out the better product. They expect that level and you guys really attained it on this album. Its an album that you can just throw it in and listen all the way thru and then feel at ease to throw it in again and listen all the way thru.
DENNIS WARD: Thank you very much. It’s always great to hear.
There is a sense of professionalism that set the greats apart from the rest of the pack and I believe that you see that with Dennis Ward. His portfolio as a musician and producer/mixer/engineer speaks for itself. With one listen of the Place Vendome “Close To The Sun” album you can immediately sense that you have touched the pure excellence of AOR/Hard Rock. This is the upper echelon of music from the Vocals of Michael Kiske that just sear through the listener and touch every sense of the imagination and heart to the huge, sonic sound of the production overall. It was an honor to speak to Dennis and I sincerely appreciate the art that he perfects for us so that we can enjoy this great music for years to come.
FOLLOW DENNIS WARD AND MICHAEL KISKE AT: