Written with Black and White - Oliver Palotai of Kamelot

A German in an American band fronted by a Norwegian, Oliver is used to keeping an arm's length from the usual. He spoke Metal as Fuck about his passion for the keys, Kamelot's new album and how he'd "bankrupt the band in half a year" if he was trusted with show bookings.

In heavy metal history we hear endlessly of guitarists, bassists, drummers and vocalists – who was the greatest? Who are our favorites? Which one do we try to emulate in our own playing? One often neglected instrumentalist that remains almost fundamental to some bands is that of the keyboardist – especially in contemporary European power and progressive metal. Kamelot, however are an oddity in terms of the metal world. Formed in Tampa, FL, they have carved out a highly distinctive European power metal sound.

Despite their origin, they boast a Norwegian singer and more recently the German keyboardist, producer and music teacher Oliver Palotai who joined in 2005 to record keyboard parts for The Black Halo. Shortly after it was revealed he was a permanent fixture both in the studio and on the road for Kamelot, all the while keeping up appearances in his own band, Sons of Seasons. He’s also one of the luckiest men in metal, having flame-haired soprano beauty Simone Simons (Epica) as his girlfriend.

Now inducted as a fully fledged member of the power metal outfit he contributed to the darker and more orchestral (even for Kamelot) new record, Poetry for the Poisoned. Oliver, speaking from his home in Germany told us it was all just a product of “going with the flow.”

“The flow brings you somewhere,” he explains. “Even when we were going through the [creative] process we even said to ourselves, ‘yeah, this is [going] into a really dark direction.’ The [dark path] also started a little bit with Ghost Opera. You also see that in the video we made for The Great Pandemonium as well.

Sometimes after the whole thing happens you see the whole picture and you can reflect on it – it was very surprising to see.”

Though many have come to realize Kamelot’s music has been streaked with darkness since the critically and popularly acclaimed The Black Halo, Oliver contends the band’s direction isn’t as obvious as fans would like to point out.

“On the Black Halo [record] when Kamelot did a video for The Haunting [featuring Dimmu Borgir’s Shagrath on vocals] people thought we might be going more mainstream or something – but we took a totally different direction. It’s not really reflecting on something we’ve been listening to or our personal lives – it’s just a kind of tendency that came out of, well, I guess nowhere.”

At least for Oliver, Kamelot’s dynamic approach to songwriting keeps him on his toes and confesses that he “couldn’t be in a band that produced the same album every time.”

“I’ve been in a band where exactly that happened. I felt so depressed for the six years I was there – I quit even though the band was successful. I need to take new turns all the time.

Working as a producer himself he was introduced to long time collaborators Sascha Paeth and Miro, who have produced every Kamelot album since the beginning almost having a “symbiosis” between producer and band. Though not exactly the “sixth and seventh” members of the band they all share a unique creative relationship.

“They pick up the ideas from a certain point of the whole process,” Oliver explains. “They start working on it and they change some things sometimes. The Kamelot production doesn’t have a clear songwriting process – there’s no real pre-production, stop then production and so on. It all kind of flows into each other.

"They are definitely a part of Kamelot – but it’s always a little bit hard to define where they come in. Some songs are really finished before they touch it and other times they catch us when we just start working on it. They’re definitely a part of the whole thing and have been for a long time.

“I mean we could imagine working with other producers in the future but they are so versatile and always re-inventing themselves as we are. It’s just a very good fitting team.”

Now that they have finished their production cycle, is a tour of Australia on the cards?

“The problem is you’re talking to a musician and not a booking [agent],” he laughs. “Those things are done by management and they’re considering if it’s possible. I personally would immediately go there. But if I booked for the band we’d be bankrupt in half a year! But I really hope it’s going to happen soon.”

Keyboard players aren’t usually associated with the words “heavy metal” are uttered and metal keyboardists are few and far between, greatly outnumbering guitarists, drummers and vocalists. Growing up in Germany he learned his craft like almost all kids that dreamed of music mastery – in a conservatory.

“In Germany it’s very institutionalized – there’s a lot of institutions for music. I got into a musical way before I even started piano at the age of three I got some musical education and at seven I started playing piano so I always had classically-trained teachers.

“When I was twenty I went to university in three different cities each in different countries so I got a very solid musical education there. I’m not self-taught at all…at least not in the jazz or classical music that I was trained in.”

Despite being steeped in tradition, Oliver ignored the more obvious route from a quite young age and after some exposure as a metal keyboardist, the metal world expanded before his eyes.

“I got in touch with metal when I was fifteen – I had my own hardcore sort of band and that wasn’t really serious. But at twenty-six [veteran metal vocalist] Doro Pesch called me up and she said she needed a keyboardist/guitarist – that’s when I got a little bit into the metal world for the first time.

“Then it kind of exploded – I got so many offers all the time from other bands in the metal world. But at the same time I’m still doing a lot of jazz and classical music; orchestrating and producing for bands. Even for pop and other styles – maybe you don’t want to know!” he laughs.

Behind the scenes at metal gigs, it’s common for guitarists to trade licks and war stories about their instrument – boasting about new techniques or lamenting snapped strings during a show for example. Keyboardists are a different breed altogether. Though he is friendly with fellow keyboardists Janne Wirman or Jens Johansson the camaraderie has a distinctly different attitude.

“The keyboard tradition is so much older than electric guitar,” Oliver explains. “The point is that I’m not influenced by metal players at all. Everything that’s technically possible on the piano has been done already – more than one hundred and fifty years ago.

“If you want the real cool stuff, you go to composers like Chopin, Rachmaninoff or Liszt, those players. Whatever happens in metal can’t really surprise me. I mean there’s no metal keyboarder that started as one. But as a guitarist you can start there and you’re influenced by metal. But we [keyboardists] don’t talk about music so much.”

They talk about the important things in life, right?

“Absolutely,” Oliver says. “Professional musicians don’t really want to talk about their jobs…we talk about the good stuff. Girls, and food and beer.”